Kids’ Voices, Kings’ Speeches, Irish Accents, and the Damn Arbitrariness of Words

When you’re a parent, you find yourself having strange conversations now and then with your children. Sometimes they go like this (true story):

“Mom! He hit me in the butt!”

“We don’t say ‘butt.’ We say ‘bum.’ ”


“Well. Um. Just because. It sounds better.”

Or this one in the car not too long ago:

The six-year-old drops something and says, “Damn it!”

“Oops,” I say to Hubby. “Pretty sure he got that from me. Oh, man. What if he says that around other people? Then they’ll know that WE talk like that.” To the six-year-old: “You don’t say that at your friends’ houses, do you?”

“I said it at Spencer’s house.”

“Oh, great. Okay, well, we only say it at our house, okay? Because it’s okay in our family, but some families don’t like it.” To hubby again: “Is it a double standard if we let him say ‘damn’ but not ‘butt’?”

“Yes,” Hubby says, “but I’m okay with that because I don’t like ‘butt’ and I’m okay with ‘damn.'”

I laughed. “And what about ‘kick butt,’ like ‘kick-butt herbs’? For some reason I’m okay with that phrase. It’s all pretty arbitrary, isn’t it?”

And of course there was the time that the six-year-old, when he was four or five, pointed at someone’s stuff on the curb across the street, waiting to be picked up by Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and said, “What the hell is that?”

Yeah, we say that too. And we got a good laugh over hearing our kid imitate us. Somehow adult phrases sound so much funnier in kid voices.

Isn’t it crazy how arbitrary we can be about our word preferences? Arbitrary and yet absolute in our opinions.

We refuse to use either four-letter F word in our house, while most people probably struggle to think what the second one is (hint: we have our kids say they “passed gas” instead). I hate the sound of both of those F words, and Hubby does too.

On the other hand, I love the feel of “damn” or “hell” rolling off my tongue. It’s so mollifying when I’m frustrated. I justify it because you can find both of those words in the scriptures, and also because I only damn inanimate pronouns (strictly “it”) and never personal pronouns (like “you” or “him”), as I mentioned in a post back in October.

But then, at the same time, I can be so horribly fickle. During a warm weather day a week or so ago, I was talking outside with some moms in the neighborhood about the rating change for The King’s Speech. Hubby and I had seen the R-rated version and absolutely loved it, F-word and all. Once in a while, even though I dislike the word in general, it can work well and even be strangely tasteful in a particular context. When my neighbor told me they’d subbed the F-word with the S-word to make it PG-13, I was appalled and declared that I wanted the artistic integrity of the original version preserved. (Yeah, they looked at me like I was nuts, which I am.)

Who decided which of those is worse? Okay, yes, if you think about the semantics, I suppose what F means is worse than what S means. But with just the sound of the word? Both have a harsh sound, that hard, plosive consonant ending (as opposed to the soft ending of “damn” or “hell”). If I had to pick, merely according to aesthetics, I’d choose F simply because the “uh” vowel sound isn’t quite so awful on my ears as the nails-on-a-chalkboard “sh” followed by “ih.”

And then there’s the accent to consider. I don’t think I’ve ever liked either word said in an American accent in a film or real life, but with an English or Irish accent? It can be almost lovely.

We went and saw The Swell Season when they came to Salt Lake shortly after their song “Falling Slowly” (in the movie Once) won an Oscar a few years ago, and Glen Hansard used the F word all over the place in his narratives between songs, but he explained that it was his Irish way of getting back at the British by speaking an effed-up version of their language. Hilarious! I laughed and enjoyed the whole concert, not finding the word grating at all.

Maybe that’s because it sounds like a completely different word with an accent. It gets that tidy “aw” sound, like “clock,” rather than the trashy “uh” like “puck.” But even “tidy” and “trashy” are arbitrary labels, made up by me as I’m writing this, based on no authority but my own fickle opinions.

Where am I going with all this? Just that I find it funny. I get a good laugh at my own idiosyncracies, so sometimes I like to display them so others can have a laugh too.

Anybody else this way? What taboo words are you fine with and what others do you shun? What exceptions do you make?

Leave a comment!

p.s. sorry about my failure to post on Friday. It’s been a busy few days with grading final papers to give back to students last night. My 1010 students have now flown the coop, and while I’m sad to see them go, I’m looking forward to a month off before summer classes start. I’m planning to post again this Friday and get back on schedule.

A Rare Treat: Great Parents in YA Stories

Guess what Hubby got me for Valentine’s Day? Great YA lit in movie form!

We stumbled across Easy A about a month ago when we were surfing the cinema channels on Dish Network (because that’s what our lives have become: no chance to get to the theater without three kids in tow, just waiting for movies to come to us via satellite while the little monsters are sleeping). The reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (“smart,” “witty”) immediately reminded us of one of our all-time faves, Juno, so we paid the six bucks for instant access and settled in, two thirty-year-olds watching a high school movie — and loving it.

Emma Stone is fantastic, of course, and is the perfect blend of self-assured and vulnerable with this character. But what absolutely sold the show for me was the first moment we meet Olive’s parents. The casting said it all. When I saw Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson on the screen, I fell in love. Could a young adult character have any better parents? No! Every line they gave just made me love them more.

I have to include at least one clip:

(And in case, like us, you kept rewinding to figure out what the “clever word play” is that she says, I finally caught it on my tenth time through: “grist.” So the movie gets bonus points for improving my vocabulary.)

The day after we saw Easy A for the first time, Hubby asked, “So how can we be as cool as those parents in the movie?”

“I was thinking exactly the same question,” I said. “But I haven’t figured it out yet.”

I’ve thought about it a lot, actually. For one thing, it’s dang unusual to see cool parents in a coming-of-age story. The protagonist generally has a lot more leeway for adventure if he or she has been orphaned, either by death or neglect. In this case, Olive Penderghast gets leeway by having parents who are . . . what would you call them?

They don’t freak out about her lingerie-esque wardrobe, but they do point out to her that they are becoming concerned about it. They don’t freak out when she takes a boy up to her room and closes the door, but at one point when she’s alone with the door shut, growling because she’s mad, her dad comes in and says, “Are you okay? It sounds like you’re having sex in here.” It’s a funny line, but enough to show us that her parents are aware, and it becomes touching when Olive doesn’t reveal the source of her frustration and the dad doesn’t push her to, just saying, “Give ’em hell.”

On the one hand, I’ve wondered if her parents should have stepped in more. Not for the sake of the story, which as I mentioned sort of requires parents to be hands-off. Just for the sake of good parenting. Or is the space they give her part of what makes them admirable to Hubby and me?

I’ve been aware of “space” in the family a lot lately. As I’ve learned more about nutrition I’ve been changing up our diets a lot, which, with four boys in the house, is enough to cause some grumpiness. You know, the way to a man-boy’s heart and all that. Food is important. And I soon learned that my best approach was to back off from everybody a bit. The six-year-old especially needed space to come around on his own. If I insisted he try a new food, he would cry and we’d have a battle. If I waited, he eventually discovered that whole wheat corn bread didn’t actually taste that different from white flour corn bread.

Today he even shocked us by saying, when his dad offered him banana bread for dinner, “No, I need to eat something healthy.”

(Never mind that the banana bread has no sugar or white flour and so is actually healthy in that sense.)

So maybe hands-off parenting really is the way to go. Let the kids learn for themselves.

But I think the secret is also to let them know that you’re aware of them, watching out for them, ready to talk with them when they’re ready. Joke with them, let them know you know what’s up, spend time with them.

Yeah, I think if Hubby and I can be like Olive Penderghast’s parents, we’ll be doing pretty well.

What do you think? What great parents have you encountered in YA movies or books? Any you want to be like?

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Genius Husbands, Video Cameras, and Reading Time

The usual two familiar faces turned the doorknob and peeked into the garage wearing “fuzzy jammies” and happy grins as I pulled in after work tonight. They hugged my legs, I kissed their hair, and they ran back upstairs and into bed. It’s routine for us ever since I started teaching evening classes a couple years ago.

While I’m gone, they have routines with their dad as well. He’s a master at fun bedtime games that make them excited to get pajamas on, brush their teeth, and climb into bed. It’s fantastic. But unfortunately, what with the hecticness of a baby, etc, they’ve also fallen into not-so-great routines like watching cartoons before bed. Parents are only human. This stuff happens. 

Tonight, as the boys ran back upstairs, Hubby grabbed the camera and flipped it to playback mode, saying to me, “You’ve gotta check this out.”

It was a thirty-second home video featuring the sound of tears with Hubby narrating: “Here on the couch we have a sad five-year-old holding Cat in the Hat. Why are you crying?” And the five-year-old whined: “I want to play my computer!” The camera then moved into the kitchen where it caught sight of the three-year-old holding a board book behind his back. Hubby: “There are tears on his face and he keeps running away because he doesn’t want to read, either. He wants to watch cartoons.” And the three-year-old scowled at the camera and ran off again on cue.

(I wish I could post it here, but we try to avoid showing our kids or using their names on the internet, for their protection.)

Well, I was laughing pretty hard watching all this, but I was also thinking to myself, “Great. He’s forcing them to read and now they’re going to hate it.”

“Now watch this,” he said, skipping to a second video.

In the second video, the boys had done a 180, both of them on the couch with big grins on their faces, excited to show their books to the camera and talk about what they were reading. “I showed them the first video of themselves, and it totally calmed them down.”

Wow. Sometimes my husband amazes me. Two thirty-second videos and suddenly a reading-time routine is born (which, by the way, was all his idea; I can’t take any credit at all).

It’s not for reading bedtime stories to the kids, which comes after, but for each member of the family to choose a book and read it alone. Hubby showed the camera the biography of Carnegie he’s reading. On the nights I’m not teaching, I’m looking forward to getting through Behemoth. The boys will be able to see that both of their parents love to read, which wasn’t happening before when we waited until we got in bed to crack open our own books.

There’s something to be said for genius husbands, video cameras, and reading time.

What reading traditions have you used in your family? What creative tactics have worked in getting your kids to love reading? What ideas do you have that you want to try?

Leave a comment!

Novels and Newborns

They say each one gets easier and yet is just as hard.

It seems like a paradox, but I totally get it. You’re not so clueless as you were the first time: you know what to expect, you have plenty of tricks to employ now. And yet it’s still the same: there will still be nights where it keeps you up for hours.

Half the time it’s just a guessing game of figuring out what it needs, eliminating possibilities by trying tactics that don’t end up working until you find one that does.

Beginnings are still blah. How to catch a reader’s interest from the start? How to catch enough time for a shower?

Endings are still aggravating. How do I pull it all together? How do I pull through the cranky evening hours?

Middles are still murky. What do I write next? What do I do to get this baby back to sleep in the middle of the night?

Both newborns and novels teach patience and endurance. I tell myself that I just have to make it through the first draft/six weeks. And then it’ll get easier.

And once I make it through that draft/six weeks, I tell myself that I just need to get to the next milestone, whether another solid draft or a more independent skill stage like sitting up, playing with toys, eating solid foods, crawling, walking.

But yeah, I can admit that this third baby is easier than the first, just like my second novel has been much easier than the first. The reason is that I feel like I know what I’m doing. I know how to nurse efficiently, how to coax a baby to sleep, how to take advantage of the five-to-ten minutes at a time that he’s happy in the swing or distracted by his own hiccoughs, how to set up a nap schedule, all that. I’ve got the process down.

With writing, that’s the biggest factor: knowing your own process. On the first novel, I felt as clueless as I did with my first baby. I muddled my way through the first draft and then had no idea what to do with it next. Make the sentences prettier?

It’s sort of like when you bring your first baby home and treat it like a doll, dressing it in the different cute outfits you got at the baby showers. Sure, that’s fun, but it’s not really what parenting is about.

And of course, regardless of whether it’s your first or your fifth, etc, every newborn or novel is full of surprises, not going the way you’d expect. Sometimes that’s frustrating, but often it’s half the fun, like when it wakes you at 5am instead of 3am and those two extra hours feel like the best gift ever.

What do you think? What gets easier or stays just as hard for you after multiple children, novels, knitting projects, whatever?

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The Moral of the Story Is . . . ?

Isn’t interesting how — unless a story is told like a parable with an obvious lesson — different readers take different morals from the same story? And, if you reread a book at a different stage in your life, you’ll likely take a different point from it than you did earlier. To me, that’s one of the things that make stories so awesome.

This weekend I scored the chance to borrow and read an early copy of Maggie Stiefvater’s Linger, which comes out in July. I promise not to spoil anything, so I’ll just say general things, like that I loved it even more than the first one in the series, Shiver, and have fallen more in love with Stiefvater’s writing style. Also, this book gave me more to think about.

For example, I’ve started thinking how miserably difficult it would be to find your true love as a teenager.

Regardless of your opinions about true love leading to marriage, I think true love naturally leads to the desire to be together, to live together in the sense of creating a life together (not just sex), to come home to each other at the end of every day, to sleep beside each other for that chance to whisper about the things that fall into your head before sleeps takes you.

Teenagers (under 18) are sort of restricted in all those areas, and that’s definitely something that comes up in Linger and that carried over from Shiver. I felt that ache of frustration for the characters. I could understand where they were coming from.

After all, when I found love I was almost 20 — certainly still pretty young, but old enough that we were both already out of our parents’ houses and it was possible to get married, get an apartment, get furniture, get jobs, etc, within just a few months of when we started dating. If you find your true love at 15, 16, or 17, you’d be waiting years, not months.

But here’s where my perspective also handed me a different moral of the story than most teenage readers would take away: I also saw the story from the parents’ point of view.

Most parents do not want their daughter’s boyfriend sleeping in their daughter’s bed, regardless of how in love the two might be.

My gut reaction was to wonder if I’d want my kids reading a book like this when they’re teenagers. Would I want them to sympathize so strongly with the girlfriend and boyfriend while the parents seem a little like bad guys?

But then I started to think about what lesson there might be for me as a parent in this story — not that I believe Stiefvater constructed the story that way on purpose, but I believe that stories can naturally give us ideas about what things might be like in certain circumstances.

And what I think is that parents should be the ones sympathizing with the daughter and the boyfriend — not necessarily condoning their behavior, but respecting their feelings.

In this book, Grace complains that her mother is condescending, always telling Grace that she’s in lust, not love, and that it’s not really possible to fall in love so young and that Grace won’t really know that until she looks back. While all of that may be totally valid (I think it was the case for most of us that true love did not hit in high school, regardless of how often a high school heartbreak made it feel like it had), it’s the attitude of the mother that sabotages her relationship with her daughter.

On the flip side, one of the greatest things my mom ever did for me as a teenager was take me and my feelings seriously. I still remember being fourteen and liking a guy who liked me (looking back, I probably liked him because he liked me), telling my mom all about it, and being surprised at her level of sympathy and seriousness. Her tone suggested everything: that she understood, that she wasn’t treating me like or thinking of me as a kid, that she considered my feelings valid.

Now I wonder if she was able to talk with me that way because she and my dad were high school sweethearts. She knew very well that young love is possible.

And what it did for me was create a mother–daughter relationship where I knew I could always talk to her. I was more willing to go to her for advice because I knew she wouldn’t talk down to me. And when you’re trying to navigate those hairy-scary teenage years, a relationship like that makes all the difference.

So maybe the moral of the story is that it’s great for YA books to treat teenage problems as being this real . . . because it helps us remember that they are. It helps us remember that teenagers are young adults — encountering adult issues and emotions for the first time. And if we can sympathize with our own teenagers as well as we sympathize with characters in a novel, maybe that will be beneficial all the way around.

Plus, looking at it that way, I’d be excited for my kids to read a book like this so we could talk about it together. I’d be curious to see it from their point of view and find out what morals they’d take from the story.

What do you think?

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Teaching Preschoolers to Read?

go, dog, go!As an avid reader, writer, and English teacher, I had certain expectations for myself about teaching my kids to read.

I mean, I’ve made sure to have plenty of books in the house and to read to them every night, take them to the library, all of that. And I looked forward to the magic moments when we’d sit down with a book together and sound out words together and it would click.

But then came this point where my oldest struggled to differentiate between colors (he’s not color blind, he just couldn’t keep the names straight), and the other kids his age knew colors, shapes, numbers, letters — all of it. I worked with him patiently for months, trying to help him recognize red from green from purple, etc.

After that I thought, How in the world will he ever learn all the letters? 

I stewed about whether to start with uppercase or lowercase and how to go about it — to the point that I didn’t try teaching him letters at all because I didn’t know where to start.

Shortly afterward he spent some time at his cousin’s house — a cousin two years younger than him — and she was using a computer program called Starfall. She could barely talk, but she knew how to ask her mom for “ABCs on the ’puter.” My son got hooked on it too, and within a month this interactive game had taught him uppercase, lowercase and sounds all at once!

I read this quote a few weeks later:

There is no matter what children should learn first, any more than what leg you should put into your breeches first. Sire, you may stand disputing which is best to put in first, but in the meantime your backside is bare. Sir, while you stand considering which of two things you should teach your child first, another boy has learn’t ’em both.  ~Samuel Johnson

Okay, lesson learned.

green eggs and hamBut.

I thought it would be a quick leap from those letters to reading. And cognitively, it was. He was perfectly capable of sounding out words, but the funny part was he rarely wanted to.

At preschool they tried to pull him out for one-on-one instruction, but he hated it because they took him out during play time. Reading was too hard and not fun.

Occasionally he and I would have a good time with him reading Go, Dog, Go! or Green Eggs and Ham at home together, but only when it was his idea. Ninety-nine percent of the time he insisted I be the one to read.

I worried a little bit. I wasn’t stressed, because really it doesn’t matter when you learn to read; my little sister struggled until she was six, but now she’s an English Teaching major in college. But I worried that I was doing something wrong if he didn’t like to read and didn’t want to even though he could.

What happened to the magic moments I’d pictured of helping him sound out words? I mean, hello! I’m an English teacher. I shouldn’t have a kid who didn’t want to read!

Now he’s in his second year of preschool, and suddenly he’s reading like crazy. He gets to color one little square for every day he reads his preschool book-of-the-week (coloring a square? why didn’t I think of that incentive?), and he loves to do it.

bears on wheelsPlus, he’ll read other random books around the house, like this old Bears on Wheels one, and come to ask me what t-w-e-n-t-y-o-n-e spells. All the other words he figured out by himself.


What do I take from all this? Well, part of me wonders if he’s going to be bored in kindergarten now. Most of me is thrilled that he’s reading and loving it. And the tiniest part of me wonders what happened to my role in this.

I keep taking him to the public library as well as building up our own library, like these beginner books. Maybe I’ve been relegated to the role of the supplier.

Of course, I still read to him at night. I guess those are the moments I better savor.

Anybody else have experience with this learning-to-read stuff? Did you play a big part in it, or did your kid pick it up on her own? Did it seem impossible until it just all the sudden clicked for him?

Any tips on how to keep the love of reading alive? What worked for you as a kid?

The two-year-old loves Starfall now, so we’re approaching the second round.

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