What's a scum-sucking pus-bucket parent to do?

Charles Rammel

January 08, 1993|By Charles Rammel

YOU scum-sucking pus-bucket," my 3-year-old daughter said to me.

I looked up from my newspaper to see the impish sparkle in her big green eyes, her cheeks dimpling in a grin. Of course, I recognized the voice of Moe, the bartender on the Simpsons, threatening the anonymous prank telephone caller (Bart Simpson) who has just asked if I.P. Freely's at his tavern -- or is it Oliver Clothes-off, or Mike Rotch?

Anna didn't really understand what she'd just said, but instinctively she knew she was treading the fine line across which trouble brews. She was testing the Old Man. Yet she was only a deep breath and a sprinkling of consonants away from more potent sounds, words with more dangerous meanings, and I wondered what my responsibility was to limit her exposure to unacceptable language and to steer her away from inadmissible behavior -- to police what she reads, sees, does, and the ways in which she expresses herself.

What is wrong with "dirty" words, after all? Do they traumatize, corrupt or otherwise sully a child's mind? Is our mandated mission to shield our children from ever hearing them said or seeing them written? If so, our goal is as doomed as the Buddha's father's when he tried to prevent his son from witnessing old age, sickness and death.

Or is it just that language is bound up in the mystery of propriety? That is, aren't we really trying to keep our children from embarrassing us, from embarrassing themselves? I found Anna's mimicry amusing, but I confess I was relieved that nobody else was around to hear her.

Still, should I blame the television show? Is it at fault, or is there something more essential going on here in the parent-child dynamic that has simply employed the Simpsons to find its expression? A challenge and response, an attempt to determine the limits, what she can get away with?

Where do you draw the line? Does it matter if you do draw a line? Does it make any difference?

Should you relinquish all responsibility to some "expert" who tells you what a child may read or watch, a movie reviewer, a child psychologist, a church official? Do you preview every book and movie and television program?

Even so, there are no clear guidelines. Even with the occasional off-color remark, I continue to allow my daughter to watch the Simpsons. It is a harmless cartoon show, with a sophistication aimed more at adults than at children, and I fail to see how the program is a bad influence.

But I know parents who refuse to let their children watch the program because, they say, it inculcates a lack of respect for parents. I simply cannot see that a half-hour television show can have such an influence on my relationship with my children. The relationship is not that fragile.

Or, using the terse cliches of movie reviewers branding a film with an R rating, these parents simply say, "Language." Of course there is "language" in a television show! What does this mean? That our children will hear characters say these words, then repeat them, thus corrupting their speech, bringing humiliation down on us all?

Still, some standards are necessary if only to give a sense of structure to experience. But what standards? I recall the case of the girl whose nude self-portrait was banned from a Baltimore County courthouse exhibition. A cashier at a store I frequent, discussing the issue, said she would never have let a daughter of hers take such a painting out of the house, let alone hang it in public.

But is it right to stifle a person's creativity? Do parents have that right, let alone responsibility? Should they deny certain story books because they have witches as characters? Yet some parents are sure such stories morally corrupt their children. I think it is far more cruel to deny children the opportunity to read such masters of American literature as Mark Twain and J. D. Salinger than to expose them to the obscenities these authors' works contain. We're not "shielding" them, but rather putting blinders on them, blinders, halters and leashes, treating them with the same respect we'd pay to a farm animal or a household pet.

Besides, such autocratic control often produces just the opposite reaction expected by the parent. By restricting a child's choices too severely, a parent often fosters resentment and rebellion. All the "rational" explanations in the world about our concern for their values, their well-being and their characters are seen as so much verbal flatulence.

Are there clearly defined standards, or guidelines, as the movie industry, for instance, would have us believe? Does the enforcement of these standards breed the very kind of disrespectful behavior we're trying to avoid?

Remember the old Dylan lyric, "I try my best to be just like I am, but everybody wants me to be just like them. They say, 'Sing nTC while you slave,' and I just get bored. I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more . . ."

So the question -- Where do you draw the line? -- is compounded with how you draw the line. And all I have to offer in response is the parent's ancient rhetorical lament:

What's a scum-sucking pus-bucket to do?

Charles Rammelkamp is a Baltimore parent.

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