There is a soundtrack to today’s article. Please enjoy. All right…has he started singing yet?
I come from a rather prudish family when it comes to cursing. I may have heard my father curse once, and it was in the middle of the night on an abandoned highway on which we had taken a wrong turn. It seemed appropriate.
I can’t say I’ve ever heard my mother curse except to repeat something she heard from someone else, and even then, it’s never shocking, but she still says it with an embarrassed smirk.
My sister says, “Holy cow!” or “Goodness Gracious!”, two expressions that my scalawags have co-opted to express excitement or surprise about anything and everything.
I, on the other hand, am the one with the foul mouth in the family. I recently learned a fact that has comforted me in this: People who swear tend to be more intelligent. Don’t get me wrong. Being a potty-mouth is not something I am proud of and I try to keep it under control most of the time.
You will rarely hear me use the big four letter words out loud, but when exchanging messages with friends I might, on rare occasion, use them to make a point. While I don’t love to gratuitous swearing, I am never shocked by foul language when it is used to express intensity. A good solid “FFS” expresses a lot more than “for goodness sake.”
On the other hand, there are everyday expressions, non-curse expressions that jar me to the bone.
“Shut up!” is one of those.
Kid lit surprises
My sister and I grew up listening to our mother read the Ramona Quimby books by Beverly Cleary. When I was in my twenties I reread the whole series and cried my way through them. The sensitivity with which Beverly Cleary wrote the complex, rich internal life of a five year-old still touches my heart.
I wanted to share these stories with my own family, so I borrowed the Ramona Quimby Collection, narrated by the amazing Stockard Channing and we started binge listening. We then branched out to the Henry Huggins Collection narrated by Neil Patrick Harris. We listened while we crafted, while we played Play-Doh, while we did chores.
My scalawags got hooked on the adventures of the kids who live on Klickitat Street.
There is one thing that bothered me as I listened: The way the expression “Shut up!” reappeared, as a way the children solved their conflicts. They would say it in anger, or in sadness. They said it in every other chapter.
Then it happened: this expression started showing up in my own children’s vocabulary. The eldest started saying it all the time. Often at times when it wouldn’t even make sense. It became his Go-To expression of discontent. At first I tried to pretend I didn’t hear it. This didn’t help. Then both indulgent father and I tried to address it. This only made it worse.
When I was a young person, my sister and I were knee-deep in the Sweet Valley High saga. Then, one day my mother told me I could no longer read those books because I was started to behave like Jessica, the nasty twin. I was madder than a wet hen about this.
This was now happening in my own family, except I was the parent now. I was going to have to take action.
There are other ways to say it…
The problem with expressions like that is that once you start to get used to them, you become desensitized to them. You start to forget that they hurt.
I have always been a talker. I have been told to shut up a fair number of times in my life, although never from anyone in family save my own children. Every time it stings for days.
Talking is my jam. Talking is my thing. I love to talk. Being told to shut up is like someone is unplugging me.
As a parent, I have been tempted to say it. There have been ravaging crises during which one of my boys, in a fatigue fueled rage will scream and shout and kick the walls. The very closest I have come was to shout, “Shut your pie hole!!!!!”
This is ineffective as a technique to stop a child from having a tantrum. I know this. Now.
The expression had left our house for a while. We stopped listening to Henry Huggins, and as if by magic, the expression disappeared. Then…even though we hadn’t been listening, it came back. With brio.
It’s the eldest scalawag who started saying it, yet again. All. The. Time. This is not the finest way for this child to endear himself to anyone, but it seemed to get my indulgent husband’s goat more than anyone else’s.
I realized that we had a mega-problem on our hands. This child and his lippy shut-uppity language needed to get a grip.
This kid’s love languages are quality time and words of affirmation: he hungers for connection. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out how I could use these to solve our problem.
The Musical Color Copier
I am a singer. In my soul of souls, that is who I am. However, I am not permitted to sing in my own home. My little scalawags cannot stand it when I sing.
In their defense, I do it a lot. I get something stuck in my head and hum it, or belt it, depending on my mood. My mind does mashups and improvisations constantly. When I worked at an investment management firm, my desk was right next to a color copier which would run frequently while people printed sales brochures on it. There was a strange little riff that the machine made while it printed: “Dah dihdih Duh Dah…” I would sing along with it all day. All. Day.
I sing to the “beepbeepbeep” of trucks backing up. I sing to the “Wee-o Wee-o” of ambulances.
I am unbearable to live with. I recognize this.
A Scalawag Dance Party
With the resurgence of the “shut-upping!” I knew I would have to take action, but that the only effective action would be one that promoted connection.
Without really thinking one time, when the eldest said “shut-up!” I belted, “Shut up and dance with me!” (This song was your soundtrack for the post, lest you didn’t bother to follow the link up top.) I caught him smirk a little bit, but then he went back to looking annoyed (for obvious reasons. What I did is Parenting Level 9 annoying.)
On the other hand, my littlest scalawag never needs be asked twice to dance. So what happened when I sang those six words? Impromptu dance party.
Our spontaneous, outrageous silliness served to further irritate the eldest scalawag at first. Then, he said it just to see us dance. After a whole day of this, the three of us were dancing.
After two days we were just dancing. And no one was saying “shut up” anymore.
It started because of something that dislodged feelings in my heart. It ended with a dance party.
It will not be every time that discipline issues can be solved with a dance party. But it has been my observation as a parent, particularly in my indulgent husband’s masterful way of dealing with itty-bitty sibling conflicts, that the best solution will always involve joy and connection.
A little joy can go a long way. A little singing. A little dancing, too. It’s totally worth it.