BY CHERYL DUMESNIL
“Ex-fart-me!” my six-year-old son K-bird crows, after ripping a loud one at the dinner table.
I pound my head into my open palms, an only slightly exaggerated gesture for the level of defeat I feel every day, as I attack the Sisyphean task of teaching my two kids “good manners.”
“Dude,” I say, “not while we’re eating. Ever.” Amongst my ever-diminishing rules for politeness, this one holds firm: no potty talk at the table. Period.
“Why?” K-bird asks, for the fifty millionth time.
“Because I lose my appetite when people do gross stuff at the table.” This is true — I have what one might call a ‘suggestible stomach.’ Talk about puking for long enough, I’ll likely need to hurl. “And,” I add, “because it’s bad manners.”
“But it’s funny,” K-bird insists.
“Sometimes,” I say. “But not at the table.”
Across from us B-man, my eight-year-old son, listens to our conversation with a sly smile skewing his face. I’ve noticed my boys doing this lately — one jumps into the fray with me, while the other sits back to see what will happen.
B-man, whom I have dubbed “the boy from planet alphabet,” loves anything having to do with words. Letters, definitions, idioms, rhymes, homonyms, synonyms, slang — all of it fascinates him. Lately he’s taken a special interest in “bad words.” Thanks to a kid in his second grade class, he knows the F word. Thanks to my reaction to a recent kitchen-flooding dishwasher malfunction, he knows the S word. Thanks to his precocious reading skills and uncanny ability to enter my office stealthily and peek at my computer screen when I’m lost in thought, he knows I use “bad words” when I write.
Not to mention that last summer when my kids hijacked my car stereo and started force feeding me near-lethal doses of pop music, I survived my quadrillionth exposure to the song “Payphone” by changing every other word to “butt,” “fart,” “booger,” or “diarrhea.”
In the backseat, the guys laughed themselves into side-aching, hiccupping, red-faced oblivion.
Since then “Potty Song” has become my go-to game, unfailingly effective for distracting antsy kids when we’re stuck in traffic.
So I can’t exactly tell my guys that certain words are unusable. (Except the word “turd” — I hate that word.) But I do want them to understand that words have power.
For instance, a little potty talk, carefully crafted and expertly delivered, has the power to make your buddy snort milk out his or her nose. Too much potty talk, however, has the power to get you blacklisted on the play date circuit. So, you know, consider that before you open your mouth at your friend’s house.
What’s important to me is not that my kiddos become perfect little gentlemen (whatever that means), but that they learn to think before they speak. Potty talk is the perfect training ground for honing this frighteningly uncommon skill.
Hence the second rule that holds firm in my never-ending quest to instill at least some manners in my children: if you want to make a potty joke, you have to ask first.
This second rule gets followed about as often as the first one. But at least I keep trying, right?
Now if you will excuse me, please, I must return to pushing this heavy fuckin’ boulder up that goddamned hill.
Poet, writer, activist, and educator, Cheryl Dumesnil is the author of the forthcoming memoir “Love Song for Baby X: How I Stayed (Almost) Sane on the Rocky Road to Parenthood.” She spends her free time jumping on a trampoline and telling potty jokes, because the sound of her kids’ laughter makes her really, really happy.