Talking about gestures, profanities and birds & bees
The other day, my 7-year old Sara and me were aimlessly lolling around the mall, discussing ice creams (and why butterscotch is the best flavor ever), spending some quality time together. Suddenly, she says “look, they’re flipping the birdie at each other!”. When I turned around, I saw two boys barely in their teens shoving each other, and showing each other the middle finger, whilst mouthing profanities that would definitely put yours truly to shame. Before we could intervene, some other kind soul stepped in, separated the boys and politely, yet firmly, reprimanded them for their outrageous behavior. We casually walked away from ‘the crime scene’ towards the waffle shop.
As we settled down, arguing about the ice cream topping on our respective waffles, an expectant couple (who apparently followed us to the place) interrupted us and asked us a question. “How are you ok about your little child talking about the middle finger- the oldest and most ubiquitous insulting gestures, an absolute profanity- and not be affected that you’ve actually taught her something bad?”. I replied with a smile, “because we talk to our child. We want to make her aware of things around. When she was 4, she heard someone use the ‘F’ word at a restaurant, and asked us what it meant; at 5, some notorious kid at her school flipped the middle finger, and she came back home and asked us what it was; around the same age, once she tried to put her fingers inside the electrical socket to see if her head could light up like they show in the cartoons. When all of this happened, we always sat her down, and explained to her what it meant, and why it was wrong. Get my drift? It’s important to speak to children”
I have often seen parents and teachers get frozen when a child asks what they perceive an uncomfortable question. There is a range of reactions, from a judgmental look, raised eyebrow or a simple ‘haaw’ followed by scolding of the child. I’ve asked this question to many- why not simply talk and explain to the child? And the answer I always get is, “it’s easier to avoid; let them grow up bit more, we will discuss then”. And that bit more growing up never happens, the child learns the meaning and further profanities from the outside world, develops an understanding about how awkward it was for their parent/teacher and bam! Start of the ‘generation gap’ and ‘communication breakdown’.
If you’re ever faced with such a situation, please, oh please, try explaining to the children what it means. Not in its entirety of course. Remember, growing children are still figuring out the right behavior socially, and might not be best decision makers about good and bad.
Middle Finger Conundrum
For instance, if you’re faced with the middle finger challenge, explain something along the lines of: "When you show someone the middle finger, you’re telling them, in a very mean and bad way, that you dislike them. You will make the person feel very bad, and it also shows you are doing a bad thing. Not required, and if someone gets angry with you and show you the middle finger, best is to first resolve, walk-away, and inform the elders around you. Also, you wouldn’t like it if someone is mean to you, no?”. It worked out well for us. Sara asked a few questions, such as ‘why do people have to be mean’ and ‘why exactly middle finger (tall-man as she calls it) bad , but pointer (index finger) not?’. We patiently explained to her, and told her if she sees someone do it, she may call it ‘flipping the birdie’. Gave her the context.
The problem with expletives
Couple of years back, I was walking around a school with the school Principal. Suddenly, a charming young teacher came and said to the Principal, “Ma’am, we have to call this child’s parents. She is using abusive words”. In spite of me being there, the Principal held her calm, and asked very politely, directly to the child “How are you? And what bad word have you used this morning my child?”
Very scared, the little girl replied, “Sir was going too fast with the story. I just said slow down, you ducking gastard”. I was in a mixed emotion zone, aghast and finding this hilarious at the same time. The Principal smiled and asked “Do you know what these words mean? And where did you hear them?”. The little girl said “in the car. Mommy was driving, and she said this to the guy in other car overtaking us. I don’t know what it means”. In normal situations, this would’ve been amusing. But, I controlled myself, and told the teacher and Principal let us all sit down with the child.
And then, the Principal handled it wonderfully. She said to the child “Look, those are very bad words,” she said. “If I ever hear you use that word again, we will have to wash your mouth out with soap. Would you like that?”. She never corrected her to use the right expletive, nor did she explain the real meaning, nor did she reprimand the child. It wasn’t required. She kindled the idea in the mind of the child that she was wrong in using certain words, and it should not be repeated. The parents were called in, not to complain about the child, but to be counseled that they should generally watch their mouths in presence of their own children. Hopefully, no one had a bar of soap used on their tongues!
The Birds and the bees talk-predicament
What should kids call their private parts? How to explain where babies come from? Should you give the child a heads up about puberty? When should you have the "big talk"? These are just a few of the many questions both parents and teachers have about dealing with children. Parents hope to avoid the awkward conversation and hope teachers will do it for them, whilst teachers are confident it’s the role of the parent to handle it.
Well, the sooner you get comfortable with discussing the topic, the smoother future chats will go, "the birds and the bees" should be phased out and planned in a proper manner. For example, to a toddler, give them clues. To a kid 7-10 years of age, answer with simple facts. As they grow older, you can have the detailed talk with them. You will find that the earlier you start, the easier it is to set boundaries, timelines and process it better. You’re also laying grounds for the children themselves to have meaningful relations in the future, instead of being rebellious / extra curious/ desperate about discovering it all.
During one of my lectures, one teacher walked up to me and said that her class- she’s an 8th grade teacher, all the kids are around 12-13 years of age, where hormones are playing their part as well- most of the kids are awkward with the opposite sex. The classroom has a demarcated girls section and a boys’ section. And, it’s a big taboo talking to the other!
I told her, as I am saying here. First things first, there is no ‘perfect’ or text book way to deal with it. Teachers can lay the onus on parents and vice versa, but it’s important to adapt the discussion based on the children’s maturity, comprehension, and, needs. The good news is that all of us have had many conversations with children about their friendships, feelings and their dreams, desires, careers etc. over the years. Rather than having one ‘big talk’ now, one can continue with these everyday conversations, and gradually adapt them to the need of the child as the relationship becomes more comfortable. The idea is not to simply ‘get it over and done with’ but for there to be comfort around.----
I have found that, in general, children don't want to hurt others. They may think something is funny or not think through what they are doing, which ends up hurting people, but they (generally) try learn from those experiences so as not to hurt others again. Therefore, it is even more important to shepherd them about such things.
Of course, it’s never easy. The other day, in a moment that made us laugh and cringe at the same time, we were driving around when Sara said “Papa, the uncle in the other car is saying something about your mother. How does he know Dadi?”. I’m thankful to the soundtrack of La La Land that came on the radio right then, distracted and captivated Sara’s attention, and I didn’t have to reply to her (or, to the guy abusing me from the outside). Sara forgot about the abusive uncle in Mia and Sebastian’s theme, however, gave us enough food-for-thought to plan and talk to her about handling road-rage and abuses, just when the time is right!
Educationist, Actor, Writer and Singer
Kanak Gupta is the Vice President of Seth M.R. Jaipuria Schools.
He possesses over decades experience in consultancy and research in the areas of globalization, brand building, start-ups and business best practices. He has experience in well known multi-nationals as well as boutique firms in UK, Germany, UAE and India. Prior to this, he was associated with Jaipuria Institute of Management as Dean and Professor. A management graduate from Krannert School of Management, Purdue University, USA, he is also a co-founder of Theatrecian, one of the most prolific theatre and cinema groups in Kolkata and Mumbai. Among other things, he’s an almost full time parent and occasional writer, actor, singer.