The Playroom: Bad words

Author: Maraya Steadman '89, '90MBA

A few days ago my son said something inappropriate to his little sister. She tattled. I yelled. His father asked, “Where did you learn to say that?” “Where?” “Who taught you to say those words?” “Well, who was it?”

My son sat resolutely at the kitchen table, answering, “I don’t know.”

“Oh yes you do know.”
“No, I don’t Dad. I don’t know.”

Now, I do know. But I wasn’t going to say anything. The mother of one of my son’s best friends had sent me an email documenting the phrase six months ago. I knew it was out there and I knew which locker room it crawled out of, but all that was irrelevant.

What was relevant was the consequence for his actions, I told my son to go and get me his iPod.

In my son’s fourth grade life the iPod is his music before a game, his video games and his way to text and email his friends, although none of them seem to have figured out how to make that work and I’m not telling them. It’s his most valuable possession — the one thing I can take away that I know is going to hurt. And that’s kind of the point.

He trudges off and returns, placing the iPod on the table. My next move is going to be “how long.” How long will I keep the iPod for a vulgar language infraction? I have no idea. There is no manual for this sort of thing, no severity ranking of bad words, no guide for which phrase merits what consequences. It’s totally subjective and I have no clue what is appropriate punishment for inappropriate language. So I tell him, “I’m keeping it until you earn it back.”

He asks, “Well, how do I earn it back?”

I answer, “By doing good deeds, being kind and compassionate, by not fighting with your sister, by treating her with respect and by being helpful, cheerful and pleasant.”

Wow. This has been just about the best parenting idea I’ve ever had. My son carried in the groceries, and watched “My Little Pony” with his sister. He fed the dogs, helped with the laundry, shared, listened, asked how he could help, sat on his bottom instead of his elbows at the table and instead of freaking out over stalled video games, he informed me, “It’s okay, Mom. I can go read a book.”

At the end of the most amazing day ever, as I am tucking him in to bed, I comment on his good behavior, how pleasant and helpful he’s been and how much he’s read.

I can control what he eats for lunch, who gets invited over for sleepovers, when he gets his homework done and the clothes he wears. But there are starting to be windows, spaces, whispers in the back of the car, and voices shouting across locker rooms I can’t control.

Before I kiss him good night and turn out the lights I tell him, “Whatever you want to talk to your friends about is your own business. There are some things you have to figure out on your own, like the kind of person you want to be. But this is my business, I don’t want to talk to your sister, your coach, the school principle or anybody else’s mother about your testicles. Never, ever, never. Got it?”

He smiles and asks for the iPod back. I’m not sure I’ve taught him anything other than don’t get caught, which is a shame, because I’d really like to take that iPod away again, maybe for more than just one day.

Maraya Steadman, who lives in a Chicago suburb, is a stay-at-home mother of three children. Her website is Email her at