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Explaining 'Bad' Words to the Kids

Photograph by Getty Images

My 3-year-old dawdled behind me, wearing her signature impish grin. She had a secret, and she was letting me know. I played it cool so as not to scare her off. I wanted to know her secret, but I didn’t want her to know that. It was our version of cat and mouse.

“Mama,” she said as we made our way to the ladies' room of the gigantic bounce house, “I learned a bad word today.”

I stopped breathing. Already? She’s only 3! What’d she learn? Who is responsible for this? I mustered the strength to keep up my cool mom act while my mind zoomed with accusations and speculations.

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“Really?” I said, feigning boredom with the subject.

“I’ll tell you what it is when we get in the stall,” she promised. That gave me about 25 seconds to compose myself for the teachable moment that was staring me down. My job is to listen, I reminded myself over and over so I wouldn’t cover up my uncomfortable feelings with chatter.

“It starts with an ‘N,’” she whispered in my ear. My heart stopped. My pretense of calm slipped away. Please tell me she said “m” and not “n.”

“What’s the word?” I said, hoping that I wouldn’t stroke out or fumble when I heard her answer.

She giggled and blushed. I wanted her to tell me so we could talk about it. I wasn’t leaving that bathroom stall until she told me what the N-word was.

In a voice just above a whisper, she said, “Negative.”

OHMYLORDTHANKYOUJESUS. I felt the blood return to my extremities as I gave her a big hug.

“Negative, huh? That’s the bad word?”

“Yes, the big kids were saying it over by the red slide.”

I had that euphoric, I-dodged-a-bullet feeling as we rejoined our friends back at the birthday party.

I was so primed for a discourse on race relations and respectfulness that I had no idea where to begin with "negative." “Do you know what that means, sweetie?” She shook her head, and I thought about how to explain it. I was going to just sum it up by saying, “It’s basically the word to describe mommy’s worldview,” but that seemed advanced for a preschooler.

We sat in the stall for a good five minutes while I tried to describe negative as the opposite of positive. I juxtaposed chocolate and sunshine with bad manners and empty calorie snacks. There’s no way she has any idea what “negative” means, but I think I did make clear that it wasn’t a “bad” word.

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I had that euphoric, I-dodged-a-bullet feeling as we rejoined our friends back at the birthday party. I watched my daughter tumble and swoosh down the slides and thought about the conversation that we will have one day about words that really are “bad” and hurtful and that rip at the fabric of society.

Is it possible that she’ll never learn those words? I know it’s not, but I can’t help myself from wishing that the hardest word I’ll ever have to explain is “negative” and that’s the only bad N-word that ever crosses her lips.

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