My third-grade computer teacher didn’t know what to say when she first saw the swastika drawn in magic marker on my hand. I knew I was in trouble, but I didn’t understand why. My teacher knew I had to be punished but it had to have occurred to her that I had no idea what it meant. I knew nothing of the hate that symbol carried but the undisputable fact remained, it was on my hand and needed to be dealt with.
After an unsuccessful attempt to contact my mother, my teacher frantically removed it by scrubbing my hand raw. I didn’t resist and was shocked that the weird little x thing I had copied from a book at my house had caused such a fuss. I wasn’t worried about getting in trouble at home, after all that is where I first saw it. But I did lose recess privileges for a week so I would have time to sit and think about what I had done. It was a hard lesson to learn but it would not soon be forgotten: Do not draw on my hands.
It wasn’t until a few years later I learned the gravity of what it means to wear a swastika to school. Once I understood, I was disturbed that the school didn’t do more; like tell me that the symbol represented the genocide of millions of people. It was a lost opportunity because the focus was on the existence of the symbol, not what it represented.
Today my son’s teacher was waiting to talk to me at pick up. In a low tone she told me about how my son had been making jokes about peeing and farting on things and that she has spoken to him about only using potty words in the potty. I asked if his jokes were funny? She said it was clear he was trying to be funny, and that he was getting a reaction. Which to me, meant that his joke was probably funny, at least to four-year-old.
This is a situation that most parents have been confronted with; the language or behavior of our child is offensive to someone, and society’s reaction is to censor the source instead of using it as an opportunity to educate, clarify, or elaborate on the topic. Knowing my child and how farts are regularly a topic of conversation in our household, I was not offended in the least by the word. My son’s bookshelves are filled with books about the topic. Frank the Farting Flamingo, Thomas the Tooting Turkey, 101 Facts about Farts, etc. Not to mention that making fart sounds on our daughter’s stomach is one of her all-time favorite activities.
However, even as I write this my word editor is flagging the word “fart” with a caption of “this word could be offensive to your reader”. There is a large section of the US population over the age of four that finds farts offensive so I should have agreed with my son’s teacher and told my son that there would be consequences for potty talk, but my conscience wouldn’t let me.
The teacher continued on to tell me that she’s not sure how to handle this. I immediately respected her more; she was being authentic. I told her that we don’t censor words in our household, but we do punish intent. That if my son’s intent was to gross people out at the dinner table, there would be a consequence, regardless of the actual words used. But if he was in good faith trying to tell a joke about bodily gases and fluids that there would be no consequence.
After a few more minutes of discussion, we decide that I would teach him how to tell jokes that didn’t involve bodily fluids or gases and support the teacher in telling him that he was not to use potty words outside of the bathroom. I held my tongue as I sincerely wanted to know if he could ask his classmates into the bathroom to tell them about a joke with potty words, but I reasoned that would not be helpful.
Farts can be gross, smelly, and unwelcomed by most adults but to a four-year-old, farts are pure magic. My son can make his butt talk on command. What more does he need to know? Controlling body fluids and gases are often the first time a child has real agency. They get to decide when and where they will let these go. They go from waking themselves up with their own farts as babies to playing fart tag with their friends.
By in large, bodily noises are hot topics in the play-yard and impossibly funny to most kids. My son has never come to me crying because another child talked to him about farts. Nor does the topic of farts represent any horrific historical event, or racism, or sexism, or really anything other than a loud noise followed by smell. I would venture to say that farts are probably one of the few topics that cross geographic boundaries and span across all ages. Simply put, creative jokes allow children to put the “art” back into “Fart.”
My last employer had a CEO that swore constantly and was unbashful about it. He reminded me of Louis C.K. and was probably one of the most authentic people I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. He said something early on that really stuck with me. I can’t recall the exact words, but it was something along the lines of: Swear at work. Don’t censor yourself. If you’re watching what you say, you’re not really being yourself. I’m paying you to bring your full self to work so don’t waste time/money trying to be someone else.
In the almost three years I worked for that company, I never once censored myself. I felt safe in just being me and often received reassurance from my superiors that I was hired for what I am not just what I can do. I should note that I didn’t show up to working telling jokes about farts, but I was more “me” then I had ever been at a job. Since that experience, I will never again play the corporate game of puppets and mirrors as my authentic self has proven to be much more effective.
Today I will laugh at my son’s fart jokes and then gently remind him that it is important to know your audience. I will be mindful of what is offensive, but I will not react to every single offense. I will remember that the gravity of an offensive statement has everything to do with intent not just the words. I will do my best to always try to understand the intent and not make assumptions.