The Lessons We Learn

“Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.” – C.S. Lewis

Don’t hit.

Chew with your mouth closed.

Be polite.

Share with others.

These are mantras we say to our children, ones we heard from the cradle. They are the beginnings of civilized behavior for those ever-increasing moments when we interact with others and define ourselves by our behavior in the outside world.

“Remember to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and to be a good girl.” How often have I heard that one? How often have I said it?

But the other day, and then again just last week, I was hit by a sobering memory.

We were at the Nature Center off of Troost on a hot Saturday and Emily had begged me to take her around the entire pond. We did, and on the way back she was sweaty and hot and said, “Wow, I’m so hot! It’s so goddamn hot out here!”

I blinked and turned around, unsure I had heard her right, “What did you say?”

Emily stared at the ground and kept walking. I asked again, “Sweetie, what did you say?”

She glanced up at me nervously, looked back down at the ground and mumbled, “ISaidItWasGoddamnHot.”

My heart gave a painful thump. “Oh Baby, please don’t say that word okay?”

She nodded but then asked, “Okay…but…why?”

“Because Baby…because if you swear, and other mommies or daddies find out, they won’t let you play with their kids anymore. They will think you are a bad person, that you have bad parents. And you’ll be lonely and have no one to play with. I know…because it happened to me.”

Just remembering it, brings back a rush of dark, sad, lonely memories. Neighborhoods filled with children I wasn’t allowed to play with. The fact is, I became an introvert for years upon years…because I was left without any choice. I learned the words from my mom…and some from my dad (although he tended to swear in German) and I became a huge potty-mouth. I didn’t realize how huge of a problem it was until I had no one to play with. And once that had happened, there was no going back, no second chances at all.

Oh sure, there was one family on Pine Street in Flagstaff that said they would give me a second chance. But their daughter had a best friend, and really didn’t see the point in having another friend hanging on. So she managed to convince herself and her friend one day that when I was singing quietly to myself I was actually swearing under my breath. As she left with her friend, saying that she couldn’t play with me if I swore (which I hadn’t) I shouted after them in anger and frustration…the great potty-mouth rearing its head just in time for my mom to hear. She called me inside, put dish soap in my mouth, and made me hold it there for five minutes (although it seemed far longer than that). It burned my taste buds so bad I couldn’t taste anything for over a week. She might have taught me most of those words…but it sure wasn’t okay to repeat them within range of her hearing.

The point is, I spent countless years alone, without anyone to play with, because I was that kind of child and quite obviously unsuitable for playing with other children.

“Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.” – C.S. Lewis

I’m still a huge potty-mouth. In mixed company I do pretty good at hiding it. I’ve actually had men apologize to me for using “damn” in a sentence. (Oh honey, if you only knew I could make a sailor blush with some of the stuff I say!) But in my family, surrounded by those who love and accept me, those who are stuck with me as their mom/daughter/wife and know me for the good person that I am, I have the worst potty-mouth ever. If you have ever heard me really let loose than you know are part of my inner circle of love and trust.

Weird but true.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve told myself to cut it out, to stop, because I’ve got impressionable minds and ears around and should NOT be saying crap and modeling such bad behavior. Never mind the fact that a majority of us swear in traffic, question the legal status of a person’s parents at the time of their birth or suggest they were fathered by a female dog – in English, German or French (and yes, I’ve learned to swear in three languages which disproves my claim that I’m “not good at foreign languages”). At this point, my five-year-old has heard it all.

I’ve explained it to her like this…

“There are things that we do in the comfort and privacy of our home that we do not, and can not do, in public. We can’t go out in our underwear or run around without a shirt outside. We shouldn’t pick our noses or eat our boogers in public either…or at Grandori’s house, remember how it grosses her out? (yes there was that kind of incident) And when we are in restaurants we are polite and eat with forks and spoons and knives and don’t climb under the table, talk or yell loud, or climb over the benches, remember?”

Emily nods and I continue.

“Using swear words, especially when it is a child saying them, is considered very bad behavior in public. There are just certain things that we do, or do not do, around others. It is part of what is considered polite civilized behavior.”

She nods again and I hope, for now, she understands and listens. I think of our neighbor’s children and a lesson that is still being learned (and enforced) over two years later.

The kids’ mom (Mom #1) thinks that the other neighbor mom (Mom #2) is “selfish” for not allowing her children to play with Mom #1’s kids. Without going into a great amount of detail, and considering that Emily plays with both sets of kids and enjoys and benefits from the relationships (I’m Switzerland, dammit!) I do believe and supports Mom #2’s decision. She didn’t come to it lightly, and the child in question (eldest of Mom #1) who lost the most in the deal (no one to play with on the block) has also learned a great deal – it has altered his behavior enormously and I truly believe he is a better person for it.

I too, in retrospect, understand what the parents of those children who were banned from playing with me were trying to accomplish. They wanted their children to NOT use that language, to be polite and well-mannered and use clean words. Perhaps some of them even grew up to NOT be potty-mouths. Perhaps even one or two of them remember me, and when their children curse out loud say, “No, no, no Bobby, don’t say that word. I knew this little girl once, she was nice enough, but she said bad words and my mommy and daddy and everyone else’s mommy and daddy wouldn’t let us play with her anymore.”

Hopefully they won’t follow that up with, “I wonder what happened to that girl. I wonder if she is a felon right now?”

That would kind of suck.

Just saying.

I paid for my mistakes…and for the mistakes of those who taught me those awful potty-mouth words in the first place…over and over and over. Perhaps some of you wonder why in the world I didn’t take it to heart and simply stop cursing altogether. To that I simply say, “I’m hard-headed…bullish if you will. I am who I am and some things are simply not high on my ‘to be changed or improved’ list.” And again, somewhere along the line it became a litmus test of sorts, If you love me, and accept me, then you won’t condemn me or my raging potty mouth.

Weird but true.

“Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.”- C.S. Lewis

I walk a fine line here. I recognize my own shortcomings, those glaring idiosyncrasies, and hope desperately I am not completely screwing the pooch and ruining my young child’s life. I hope that I am giving her a clear view of the real world, yet modeling the other behavior that I find so important – to be a good person, to give of herself, to be kind, to be empathetic, to think for herself…and so much more.

I hope that she will learn that the world is not black and white – that a child that swears is not a BAD person. That a bully can be redeemed, that a whiner can stop whining and take control of their life, that even a ‘loser’ wins sometimes, and so much more. I hope that in most cases, it will not be personal experience that she learns from, but the examples of others.

“Please don’t say that word, baby, I don’t want what happened to me to happen to you. Because you are a good person, probably a far better person than I ever was, and you deserve to have lots and lots of friends and fun. Swearing is for big people, and you aren’t quite there yet.”

That might not be the politically correct, socially acceptable discussion to have with my child. But you know what? It’s the one I’m having.

“Experience: that most brutal of teachers. But you learn, my God do you learn.”- C.S. Lewis

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