When I was in the first grade I noticed an unfamiliar word scrawled on the bathroom wall, so I went home and looked it up in the dictionary. I'm not sure how I knew not to ask my mother what it meant, but after reading its definition, my gut instinct was validated: here was forbidden stuff, with a capital F, if you know what I mean. There was no way my mom knew that word. Thank heaven for Merriam-Webster.

Twenty five years later I had a first-grader of my own. Jeff and I decided to take a different approach with “dirty words”—we decided to attack them head-on. So one day after school I casually asked our oldest child, “What bad words are the kids using at school?” He hesitated for a second and then said, “The “S-” word,” a look of anxiety on his face. “What’s the “S-” word?” I asked, hoping I could cover my own rising panic.

“I can’t say it.”

“Sure you can. You can say it to me.”

Another pause, and then, whispered: “Stupid.”

Aha. Well, that wasn’t so bad. I explained to him that Mom and Dad knew all of the “bad words” already, and that he could always come ask us what they meant. And so it went for most of elementary school—me asking about the newest words, him responding, me supplying age-appropriate definitions, both of us giggling ourselves silly over the newest addition to the grade school potty-mouth menu. Soon he brought home the “Sh-” word, which turned out to be “Shut up” initially. Then it was the “D-” word, the “Cr-” word, and then naturally the real “Sh-” word emerged not long after.

Things moved onward from ...

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