Cussing Kids Are Clear Thinkers
Yesterday, when I returned to the car after paying for gas, Noodle announced, “I was saying rude words.” I always leave his window open so that I can chit chat with him while pumping, and it occurred to me that he might have been shouting obscenities at passers-by. This would be embarrassingly in character; he’s a friendly little guy.
“Who were you talking to,” I asked.
“I was talking to myself,” he said matter-of-factly. That’s good news.
“What did you say to yourself?”
In his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein asserts that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (5.6). Here I want to untangle this sentiment from its academic context and tie it back up with Laid Back Dad’s version of this simple claim:
Cussing kids are clear thinkers.
For Wittgenstein, the limits of language are tied up with logic and all the possible ways that we can express our world. “Logic pervades the world,” he says, explaining that the world and logic bump up against the same boundaries, and that these are limits on what we can possibly express about our world. But lest we get tangled up in petty academic battling, here’s what’s worth considering: “…what we cannot think we cannot say either” (5.61). What we can think and what we can say are shades of the same color.
You might be thinking, “What? You let Noodle say whatever he wants??” Well it’s not that simple. I’ve long held that discretion is the best form of prevention. Noodle knows all sorts of words, good, bad, and not-so-pretty. He uses the not-so-pretty ones from time to time, especially when we’re stuck in traffic. I have no idea where he picked up such a habit. Example: last night, it took us 45 minutes to travel 6km on the only road through town. Noodle, frustrated because he wanted to go home and play, asked us “why is there so much fucking traffic?” This was followed by “go away cars!” And a few other colorful imprecations that the reader’s mind can surely stretch for and easily reach. (Mental note: suppressed laughter is still laughter and he knows it.)
Surely this is bad parenting at its best and brightest, right? Laid Back Dad doesn’t think so. It’s a matter of knowing our own limits and limitations as parents. In general, we often ask and answer “What are my limits?” When we step in and curb certain behaviors, like pushing other kids on the playground, or snatching their toys, or running off when called, or jumping in muddy puddles, or shouting naughty words at unending streams of traffic, we judge that it’s time to take action because the behavior has gone too far. What “too far” amounts to is shorthand for a complicated bundle of experiences and judgments that we can call our limits. When it comes to pushing and shoving, my limits are short; if you push or shove, then I’m intervening swiftly. When it comes to jumping in muddy puddles, I take a longer view; he’s bound to get dirty anyway — might as well let it be ridiculously fun.
Untested and unstated disagreements about these limits are huge sources of conflict between parents. You see and hear the conflict in failed coffee groups and tense playground disputes. We’ve all been there; it’s inevitable. Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that everything is a gray area and that there are no clear breaches of protocol. Surely shoving and kicking — unprovoked aggression — is a no-no no matter what. But it’s the gray cases that make enemies of friends. It’s OK for Noodle to tell the other cars to eff off, but if he says the same to a little girl ahead of him on the slide, then the shit and the fan are going to meet. Context is everything.
This raises the issue of the harm or damage of cuss words. When we weigh up what’s worse, the f-bomb or pretending to shoot someone in the face, we often weigh up the tone of the behavior in question. For example, Noodle lobs his best f-bombs in the car, and often follows with “Oh, I was just teasing.” He takes it to be funny to talk rude to the traffic, and if there’s fault to be assigned for this, go ahead and give it to me. The kid is a joker at heart, and I’m fine with cutting some slack in his linguistic leash. After all, I’m not here to limit his world. On the other hand, if he picks up a stick, pretends it’s a gun, and peuw-peuw-peuws at another kid’s head, all bets are off and trouble is coming. In my world, a gun in the face never takes a polite tone. (I was involved in a playground dispute of this sort when a kid with a toy gun pointed it at Noodle’s head fired off a few shots. Laid Back Dad took a few minutes to himself while Trouble paid a visit.)
Though I have been emphasizing words and their use here, I hold the view that thinking amounts to more than manipulation of words. Noodle was a thinker before he was a talker. He expressed himself before he could say what this and that concept amounted to. Kids’ thinking reveals itself in their behaviors, where talking is merely one subset of their behavior. The idea that “…what we cannot think we cannot say…” works, for the most part, in two directions, but with one clarification: “what we cannot express we cannot think.” It’s our parental responsibility to equip our kids with the tools they need to express themselves well. I try not to discriminate between expressive styles; sometimes a good old fashioned cuss or two says exactly what needs to be said. Noodle needs to know when that is and how it works. He’s learning. Besides, there are enough lousy cussers in this world, and I’m not about to raise yet another.
When I give Noodle cuss words, I give him categories and expressions that many kids simply don’t have. At the same time, I give him the idea of discretion, so that he can start learning the subtleties of satirical exasperation in contrast to the heavy-handed righteousness of constrained speech. That’s part of it anyway, but there’s plenty more. He’s learning to use the imperative mood, which should help him better grasp when I’m trying to use it to occasionally save his life, or just stop him from feeding pickles to ducks. These things do happen from time to time.
Without cussing, he’d lose a grammatical mood that means a great deal to me, and will to him as well I reckon. We are becoming the average of one another after all. Exchanging naughty words is part of coming to understand one another; I feel that it’s important to expanding the limits of his language so that he can expand the limits of his world, and simultaneously to come to understand the limits of mine. All of this is thinking. Through it all, Noodle is becoming a more reflective person who commands a judicious restraint in dropping f-bombs. Cursing kids at the same time learn restraint and discretion and a variety of subtleties of expression that enhance their linguistic skills. Cursing kids, that is, are clear thinkers.
Besides, he’s right about the traffic: it keeps us from our important business of jumping on every horizontal surface in sight, eating absurd quantities of cookies, and drawing chalk happy faces on the kitchen floor. And for that, the cars gridlocking our way down Lake Road can and should go fuck themselves.