My father was a gentleman, in every sense of the word. More than just holding doors for people and picking up things that someone dropped, my father set an example in our house that not every family, especially today, has. In the 46 years that I was blessed to have him, I never heard my father curse or call me or my sister a name. Not stupid, not dummy, not dumbass, certainly not the F-word, not shit, not even a curse word in Italian. As a result, he didn’t allow any foul language from us. And we wouldn’t have dared. Even when my father was angry with us, he never name-called or cursed, and he definitely never took God’s name in vain.
This is not to say that my father did not use such words in anger among men-I’m sure he did- but not around his wife or daughters. In fact, if someone used such language around any of us, my father would ask him to stop. This got him into some heated arguments in restaurants and once at a Phillies game. He just didn’t see the need for it, and he didn’t want his wife and daughters to hear it. Maybe that was over the top, but I find myself squirming in the same type of awkward situations nowadays when a stranger throws an F bomb in public when I am with my daughters.
In a generation where lazy English speakers employ variations of the F word as adjectives and nouns in place of perfectly good words, I cringe when I hear this and other off-color words tossed around. It’s one thing to hurl an epithet when you’re angry, but quite another when you’re just too crass or lazy to substitute something better for foul language.
More importantly, as a teacher I hear stories of what teenagers’ parents call them and the choice of words they use to them or in front of them. And I cringe. My father’s fuse was long to burn but even when it reached its end, his temper was metered. There were no insults: not in anger and not in frustration. Perhaps this was a lesson learned by my father, whose stepfather routinely called him stupid growing up and made him feel as though he couldn’t do anything right. His own father, while stopping short of name-calling and using foul language when my dad was young, still found ways to express his disappointment to my father. Little kids internalize that message and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the case of my father, he may never have called his children stupid, but he surely referred to himself as such whenever he made a mistake. That always broke my heart. It was only as an adult that I learned why he was so self-deprecating, and although his step-father is long gone, I resent him for that damage that he did to my dad. Such a seemingly insignificant word, yet so powerful and destructive.
The thing is, I always thought, and still do, that my father was the smartest man I knew. He didn’t have the sharpest business acumen, but that’s because his calling was helping others as a police officer, a path away from which he was steered. However, he sure could speak about a huge range of subjects, and what he knew well he knew exceptionally well. Growing up I rarely needed to consult an encyclopedia, I just asked my dad. A voracious reader and lover of words, he had me doing the Reader’s Digest Word Power quizzes with him when I was 11 years old. I attribute my love of languages and words in general, to him. In fact, I am such a language fiend that I belong to several etymology groups because I crave knowing and love discussing the origins of words. (I know, get a life.)
Parents who call their children “loser,” “disappointment,” “fatso,” “failure,” or words, especially preceded by an epithet, might be trying to vent their frustration at the situation, but really, it’s just bullying. As the most powerful source of approval in a child’s life, a parent who calls his or child a name or curses conveys so much more than a fleeting moment of anger. Feelings of being unloved, unwanted or socially unacceptable (if your parents don’t seem to accept you, who will?) can play a devastating part in a child’s development. And parents who employ this method of “discipline,” if you will, should not be surprised if their children turn the tables and begin to address them the way they address their children. Or that they continue the cycle by speaking to their own families that way. It’s a cruel and vicious cycle that most parents don’t give a lot of thought to. Cursing to and in front of your children it undermines your desire to have their respect.
So yesterday when one of my students mentioned how her mother speaks to her, I couldn’t help but think about the effect that it would have on that teen now and years from now. I thought of my father and how many times I frustrated him and yet he never resorted to cursing at me. Then I thought of how he was spoken to as a little kid and how it doesn’t take much effort to reprimand a child without using harmful words or street language. And then I thought how lucky I am that when I reminisce about my dad, that I have good memories of how he treated me and how much of a gentleman he was and the example he set for me.
Another little lesson I never considered until now.