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This question was submitted to us by a therapist colleague:

“I need your advice. My son Liam is 6 years old and yesterday he came to me with a question regarding something he picked up in the school bus. The older kids were talking about the F-Word. He wanted to know what is that word? He asked me. Exactly me The background of our story is that we live in Australia, we talk Romanian at home. So we never say the F -Word. The maximum of swearing we use at home is maybe “what the hell” in Romanian. He is not watching much television, no media consuming. The bus children are between 6 and 14 years old. I don’t want to tell him what the F-word is. I don’t want him to use it and I don’t want him to know it. I know one day he will find it out but I don’t know if from me or from others?

My momentary options are to tell him that F-Word means Flower. They will laugh at him and he will lose trust in me. Or I can tell him I won’t tell. So then, others will tell him what it means. Or I can tell him what it means but then I need to forbid it too. So if I tell him I will be anxious he will use it, if I don’t he won’t tell me his secret dilemmas anymore. Help!”

Dave: You ask a good question. As with most questions about parenting we don’t have a simple answer. It is good he could ask his mother. There is so much going on in our kids’ worlds, so much they have to deal with that us parents don’t know anything about. It is important to maintain the relationship that makes conversation about new experiences possible. Keep in mind that what he learned about the F-word on the school bus came with an abundance of non-verbal communication, suggesting it represented a transgression, something naughty and deliciously provocative.

But you can be unsubtle and tell him what you think. It is a bad word. Others may use it, but I don’t want you to use it. I think people who use that word look stupid. They are trying to be big shots, but they look stupid.

Well what does it mean mom? I don’t want to tell you right now (By the way, the Japanese have a wonderful word, ‘mu’, which means “unask the question”. That’s such a great word. It isn’t appropriate here, but you might find it useful at the office, with your husband or your mother-in-law). Or, you can tell him what the F-word actually refers to. But think back to how you found out what the F-word means. Most of us get our early sex education on the play ground or on the school bus where parents aren’t around to translate or to shield. If we are lucky we have parents who can help us understand more fully.

What does the F-word actually mean? The etymological dictionary sounds slightly amused by the word ‘fuck’. The F-word and the C-word, both Standard English words, were excluded from dictionaries in the British Commonwealth from the 18th century until late 1961. Using the words is a low voltage act of defiance, a way to challenge or upset any scene. ‘Fuck’ comes from a word that means both “to strike” and “to copulate with”. Thus the F-word means aggressive copulation. Now it is used playfully among adults of both genders, but not at the faculty meeting, or other versions of polite company.

So you can tell him about love-making and sex. He may not believe you or he may become deaf. What is the right age for sex education? You can educate him any time you want to. He will understand what he can understand which is likely to be different from what you think you are telling him. What you tell him is not nearly as important as how you tell him, what kind of affect the parent adds to the information. Trouble begins in the telling if the parent is anxious, angry or sadistic.

The way you ask the question gives the feeling you have a thoughtful caring home that doesn’t breed defiance. It provides a safe space, shelter from the storm of chaos and crisis, the strange madness that is modern culture. It is good that he asks you, he lets you in on his world. Keep in mind parents are likely to see more of whatever makes them squirm. So figure out ways to stay amused. Being amused is better than squirming.

Maurice Sendak, the children’s book author and artist, “Where the Wild Things Are”, made a film I like “Tell Them Anything You Want”. The title conveys his idea, beginning with a news story that perplexed him as a boy. He discusses it thoughtfully and with subtlety. Of course he is an author not a child development specialist. But I share his view. I tend to trust stories more than behavioral science.