Rhythms and rules - FamilyEducation

Rhythms and rules

March 30,2010
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

L.'s in fourth grade now and, alas, part of life as a fourth-grader seems to involve an exposure to an ever-broadening range of colorful language. Luckily for us, L. also has a unwavering and all-abiding respect for certain rules. Maybe not for the rules we try and impose at home (ha!), but give him a rule on a sign and he'll defend it with all his might. Sometimes this is mighty inconvenient, like the time he once had a huge meltdown because we checked into a hotel and didn't tell the front desk right away that we had our dog with us. (The sign at check-in read in clear bold letters please inform the desk clerk at check-in if you are traveling with a pet.) But there are times when this need for rule-adherence comes in handy, like now, as he tries to navigate this tricky terrain of when and where to use certain types of language. L. refuses to use bad language, and woe to one of us if we dare slip up and use a "bad" word at home. I'm not sure he's been exposed to really bad words yet at school--I sincerely hope not--but I do know that right now his definition of "bad" words include "darn" and "damn" and what he calls "the h-word"--words on the milder end of the "bad" spectrum, thank goodness for that. On the way to school yesterday morning, a rainy and dark Monday if ever there were one, L. asked for my iPod so he could play a round or two of Tap Tap Revenge 3. For those of you uninitiated in all things iPod, Tap Tap is a game that challenges you to keep beat with your fingertips while you listen to songs. You need to tap the bright circles on the screen in time to the music to get points; lots of points equals new free songs you can download to the game. There are all kinds of other challenges and ins and outs to the thing but, to be honest, I haven't played it since I first downloaded the game back in January. But L., on the other hand, is a Tap Tap master--a "legend" as he says in his own words. And, really, he is good at it. His high scores are pretty staggering--epic, he says. It's not unusual for our drive to school to be accompanied by any number of Tap Tap Revenge songs coming from the backseat of the car, combined with a running commentary from L. about the meaning and words of the song. I love this new routine. Maybe I don't love some of the songs I hear. I could do without driving through traffic to the Black Eyed Peas at 7:50 in the morning, but Brett Dennen's Heaven is awfully nice to listen to on the way to work, when the rain is falling outside, and it's red streaky tailights all the way downtown. "Mama," L. piped up from the backseat, as the refrain from the song came on. "Do you know there's a bad word in this song?" "Is there?" I answered, my Mama-radar suddenly on full blast. Was there? "Listen!" he said, and there it was, the h-word, plain as day. "I know I shouldn't like the song because of that," he said, tapping away at the screen of my iPod, "but I still do. This song really makes me think." "I like this song," I said. "Even with the bad word?" "Well, yes, even with the bad word." I wondered then if I'd said the right thing. Had I just condoned bad language? Would this come back to haunt us, down the road? I imagine scores of other songs out there, songs he might one day think are good, songs filled with offensive language that would make my hair curl and my stomach churn. What would he be listening to from the backseat of the car in three years? Or five? For now though there was just my nine-year old son, tapping away to a good song; a song that made him happy inside, one that made him think; a song that made me hum along, to the whoosh and rhythm of the rain against the windows. Maybe he'll learn something else, instead--that sometimes--just sometimes--you have to bend the rules a little, just a tiny bit, to let in something good.