"Mom, may I please print something?" asks R.J., my eight-year-old son, in his sweetest, most innocent voice.
I have my hand stuck up a bird feeling for giblets.
"Sure," I reply.
I hear the hum of the printer and yank the giblets out. A little while later, the chicken roasts in the oven and a kettle simmers on the stove. While "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen plays on the oldies station, R.J. walks into the kitchen, his eyebrows knitted intently as he cradles a sheaf of paper.
"I see a little silhouette of a man," I sing. "Scaramouch, Scaramouch, will you do the..."
The kettle shrieks and I whisk it off the burner.
"Mom," says R.J., "you know that bad word -- the F word."
"Fandango!" I say, accidentally scalding myself with a few drops of hot water that miss the teapot.
"Not that one," he says, rolling his eyes, "the F word."
"Thunderbolts and lightning, very, very frightening," I think as I run cold water over my hand.
"Well, it's an Anglo-Saxon word," he says. "There was even a man called John You-Know-What. Besides, it means mating!" He pauses for effect, waving the sheaf at me. "How can a word like that be bad?"
"Can Mommy see that?" I ask in a high voice laced with anxiety taking the paper, still smelling of ink, out of his hands.
My son has printed out about 20 Wikipedia pages on the definition of a swear word -- under parental supervision. My eyes scan the text, frantically at first and then with curiosity. Hmm, first occurrence in a 1475 poem about randy Cambridge friars; a place called Fuccerham from an Anglo-Saxon land deed; Norwegian word fokk meaning streaks of foam and spray at sea. This is like F through K 101. I suppress a wry smile.
"Mom, I haven't finished reading that," says R.J., snatching the bundle out of my hands and jerking me out of my thoughts. With a child's agility, he vaults out of my reach, guarding his National Treasure du jour. I give chase, plead, reason, threaten consequences and finally catch him, wrestling the wad of paper -- now smudged, shredded and crumpled -- out of his clutches.
"Let's have some tea before we talk," I say.
He nods, eyes welling up.
I have shielded R.J. from blasphemy since birth: covering his eyes when we pass French Connection boutiques (with their FCUK logo); switching channels when chef Gordon Ramsay -- as famous for his spicy speech as for his gourmet food -- cooks on BBC America; pointing out something on the opposite side of the street when we drive by inappropriate graffiti; removing from his reach reading materials that may contain offensive language.
Then again, I think, paraphrasing the Bard, "What's in a word?" We all learn swear words by adulthood, some of us even use them. But kids are not grownups. It is our responsibility to guide them -- say please, thank you; not bleep -- until they are old enough to make their own decisions.
My husband Ron shields our son less but helps him mature more. He set up my old computer in the family room for R.J., precisely so he could look things up in the open. Though the computer has parental controls, I worry R.J. will Google worse things when older -- or on a friend's computer with no controls. Forget "Let's talk after tea," I would need a stiff drink before I broach the propriety of, say, surfing for Fat Bottomed Girls! Still, Ron talks to R.J. about making good choices. R.J. never goes online without asking permission and rarely looks up things we do not approve of.
The truth is kids grow up: they hear things, read and see stuff. Those who are curious act on it. I am proud of my son's industrious initiative, research tactics and dogged determination to learn something he does not understand. Even something he knows might get him in trouble. I remember looking up swear words in a dictionary when I was a kid, but I never did R.J.'s level of research. We had no Google then. Once R.J. realizes I am not punishing him or cross, I share all this with him. I also talk about words, how their meanings and applications change, how some words are inappropriate for use in certain circumstances, how other words are simply grown-up words, best looked up and learned when older. That night, after our roast chicken dinner, Ron tucks R.J. into bed, whispers to him about trust and responsibility when operating a computer. All is well.
"I didn't want to alarm you last night," says Ron the next morning, "but I found the pages in the printer that R.J. hadn't removed. Merriam-Webster Online. With audio pronunciation tips."
*This story ran in the Washington Post on January 4, 2009