One afternoon my son overheard me loving it up with my cat Tigger. “Mommy’s wittle Tigger wigger wugger,” I said in my smooshiest voice. “Mommy’s little baby kippens. Precious wittle Tiggy wiggy whitepaws.” I’m embarrassed to say that this went on for a few minutes. My son got a big kick out of it and started rhyming words with Tigger. Methodical child that he is, he started at the beginning of the alphabet and worked his way through. “Tigger bigger, Tigger cigger, Tigger digger, Tigger figger,” and so on, skipping all the vowels because he’s way smart and knows they won’t work in this instance.
I listened with half an ear while I cleaned up the dishes and scrubbed at unidentifiable stains on my kitchen countertop. “Tigger ligger, Tigger migger, Tigger nigger, Tigger pigger…” Oops! I shot a glance at him to see if he giggled or smirked or looked horrified at the word nigger. Nothing. No reaction. He plowed on through the alphabet: “Tigger wigger, Tigger yigger, Tigger zigger.” He stopped and looked at me triumphantly. I looked back at him uncertainly. Two voices appeared in my head. The conversation went something like this:
“You’d better stop him and tell him not to say that word.”
“He didn’t even blink when he said it. He obviously has no idea what that means.”
“If he says it at school you’ll be sorry. Everyone will know he learned it at home and they’ll think you’re a racist pig. You do realize that both the principal and vice principal are black, don’t you?”
“Tomorrow he won’t even remember that he said it. It’s no big deal.”
“What if some of your black friends come over and he says it in front of them? How will you get out of that one?”
“That damn cat will be dead soon, anyway, and he’ll forget all about the way you fawn all over the skinny thing and how you make up stupid baby words to rhyme with his name.”
And so on. I literally swayed back and forth, toward and away from my son, as I tried to decide what to do. Finally, I decided to act. “Uhm, sweetie,” I start. “The word nigger is a bad word and you should never say it.”
“What’s it mean?” he wants to know.
“It’s just a bad word and I don’t want you to ever say it.”
“How bad?” he persists.
Let me just say right here that my son is one of those kids who needs to have everything explained to him in great detail. Because I said so does not work with my son. But I really don’t want to get into this because so far in his life I have skillfully avoided the entire discussion of race relations and plan to continue to sidestep this topic for many more years to come. Yes, I am a wimp.
“Very bad.” I say. “The worst word you could ever say.” I’m hopeful that this will end the conversation.
“But what’s it mean?”
He’s not just being a pain here. He really wants to know, so that he can categorize it in his brain, probably next to shit and asshole, which I have already taught him to say. But only when driving.
So I fall back on the only answer I know will satisfy him. “It’s just a really bad word to call someone and I don’t want you to ever say it. We can talk about it more when your dad gets home.” This is a genius answer in so many ways. First, it lets him understand that it’s a bad name for someone rather than just a curse word. So when we are driving down the road and someone cuts in front of us, he’ll know not to yell “Nigger!” when it’s completely obvious that he should be yelling, “Asshole!” Second, it makes it clear to him that he is not to say it, ever. Even when driving. Third, it tells him that I am willing to discuss it in more detail at a future date. Unfortunately for him, he is still young enough to forget to hold me to the discussion and so I know that I am safe. We will not be talking about niggers with daddy over meatloaf and potatoes.
In a perfect world, this would be the end of the story. Sadly for me, it’s not, because my son did repeat the word. Over dinner. Flank steak and salad. With guests. We were talking about whether Iron Man 2 was appropriate for our kids and the conversation turned to bad language. Our friends get freaked out about curse words in movies while we are more upset by violence. Iron Man 2 has few curse words and more action than violence so it passed muster for both our families. At this point my son leaned over to the other family’s kid and whispered: “Nigger is the worst word in the world.” The other kid, a year younger and not yet having learned sneaky ways, turned to his parents and asked loudly: “Is nigger the worst word in the world?” His poor mother practically choked on her carrot shreds while his father got a thunderous look in his eye. My husband and I slunk down in our seats and turned unbecoming shades of red.
My first thought was: Shit! Now our friends think we are assholes who teach our child the word nigger. My second thought was: Shit! I should have never said anything about this to my son. Better for him to find this out on the playground or the bus. Anyplace I am not around and cannot, therefore, be held responsible. My third and final thought was: Shit! I’ll have to figure out a way to blame this on the cat.
What about you? Have you had any embarrassing moments with bad language and your kids?