Anyone who’s been a parent knows there is only so much you can control. Growing children are like subatomic particles; there’s always a measure of uncertainly as to their movements. Most of us, of course, have laid out for our kids—like Newton’s laws of physics—a set of perfectly logical rules, and then lived to find out there’s a whole world of stuff going on that we forgot to cover. Or that was, perhaps, not coverable. But, then again, we’ve also lived to find out that this stuff makes for good stories.
What brings all this to mind is a visit this past weekend from Elizabeth, now 26, our middle daughter. Growing up, she was the one who overturned her glass of milk at the dinner table not once in awhile, but every night. The one who, in preschool, flunked “standing in line.” She was the one who made the words “It was an accident!” an everyday cry in our house; who, like the young emperor-to-be in Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, “could wreck the Empire just by strolling through it.”
She was tiny, wiry, ungovernably merry, our random particle.
So here’s a story. My wife and I had established one of those Newtonian laws of family living for our three daughters: They could not say stupid, hate, or shut up. This was a an exercise in parental logic. Remove stupid, hate, and shut up, and you reduce the opportunities for rudimentary, routine discourtesy among siblings. You discourage the kind of background-level hurtfulness that is both common and coarsening among children, and thereby promote a more civil and sensitive discourse. We made this as clear as we could: If you were a child of ours, you had to find other ways to say what you meant. And most of these ways were fine with us.
We were at dinner—the five of us—discussing our days at school or at work. Elizabeth’s turn—she was no more than 7 or 8 at the time—came around and she had a complaint to make about her classmate, Ashley. One behavior or another on Ashley’s part had exasperated Elizabeth, who, as she related the tale, grew increasingly confounded by the depth and dimensions of her feelings. At last, she reached the point at which what had to be said, had to be said.
She looked at us imploringly. “May I say a bad word?”
My wife and I exchanged a glance. We said that, yes, this time she could.
“I hate Ashley,” Elizabeth said. “She’s an asshole.”