Since becoming parents, my husband and I have cleaned up our language — mostly. There have been a few heated moments when a bad word or two or three have slipped out of our mouths in the presence of our children. We might even have yelled a bad word once or twice. We work hard at this parenting gig, but no, we aren’t perfect.
Unfortunately, our older son has learned a thing or two from our bad behavior. He knows that these words wield power, so he’s tried them out a few times. And that’s when I bring out our other bad words — the ones that aren’t really bad, but that we can use to play at being bad.
It all started one afternoon when my son said a bad word — a real bad word. I was furious, mostly with myself for having uttered such things in his presence.
I turned toward my son and said, fiercely, “Don’t you ever say that again! But what I REALLY don’t want to hear you say is … CHOCOLATE ECLAIR!”
Why “chocolate eclair”? I have no idea. But my son took the bait. “Chocolate eclair!” he shouted.
“Argh!” I said, beginning to ham it up in my role as angry mom. “But at least you didn’t say … CREAM PUFF!”
“Cream puff!” my son shouted.
“Oh, NO!” I responded. “Just please don’t say … PUMPKIN PIE!”
“AARRGGHH!!! Why are you saying such terrible things?”
“Chocolate eclair! Cream puff! Pumpkin pie!” shouted my son, gleefully, while I gasped and protested in mock dismay.
I got the idea of playing around with words in this way from Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen. Cohen points out that using bathroom words, obscenities, and other taboo language is one way that children “experiment with power — the power of words and the power to break rules.” Responding to such experiments with a rebuke or punishment is likely to foster our children’s sense of powerlessness. Similarly, trying to stop the offending behavior is likely to result in a power struggle that leaves everyone feeling defeated. By diverting the experiment with bad words toward play, we instead reinforce our children’s sense of agency in a way that harms no one. Furthermore, by laughing together in such play, we have an opportunity to connect with our children in one of the most basic ways.
To my delight, my made-up-on-the-spot bad words did the trick. Not only did my son have a blast, but he got to play at being powerful in a way that didn’t push me away. Meanwhile, all of the energy of my initial fury was transformed into a joyful connection with him.
In addition, after playing this game a few times, my son gave up saying real bad words. Instead, if he wants to bug me with a forbidden word, he shouts, “CHOCOLATE ECLAIR!” And I take up this challenge as an invitation to play.
Rachael is the work-at-home mother of a vivacious two-year-old boy. As a freelancer, she edits and writes educational materials for K–12 students and teaches online creative writing classes through The Writers Studio. She is also a poet who was foolish enough to have married an artist. Though Rachael never planned to do anything other than attachment parenting, her pre-motherhood self probably would be surprised to see her happily nursing a toddler — and in a family bed! She is grateful to have found an online community of others doing much the same. Rachael writes about making her way toward work-life balance in a family of artists at The Variegated Life.
Photo Credit: Author
Photo Credit: Author