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Just the other day while on a walk with Liam, I heard a woman not too far from us scream “N***a, you must got me f***d up. I’ll f*** you up if you ask me that s*** again!”

I just figured it was some dude getting out of line and being straightened out. What I didn’t expect was that the “dude” in question was her child. The kid was around ten, trailing behind his mom and younger sister in his school uniform and backpack. Mom was in her early 30s, pretty and well-put together, a contrast to the stereotypical ratchet mother that we’re taught to expect that kind of language from.

Unless the kid asked if he could chop off one of his mom’s butt cheeks with a rusty machete, what in the world could he have said that would warrant such a brutal response? How could someone go off like that on a mini-person that looks just like them? This woman may have just run out of patience for the day, but I felt bad for the boy. Getting cussed out by anyone in the street is humiliating.

I remember my mom cussing around my brother and I when we were very little but she never cussed us out like we were guys off the block trying to holla a little too disrespectfully. In elementary school, I had a brief stint as a pottymouth but most of the credit for that should go to the other kids I played with on the block.

Mom never made us feel like her cussing was directed specifically at us. The words did sound like a lot of fun even though we knew a belt awaited us had we been bold enough to use any of them within earshot. Oddly enough, our dad never used harsh language around us. He didn’t have to, because he was already loud and intimidating. Though kids being cussed out on the Brooklyn block I grew up on wasn’t a foreign concept, me and my brother were lucky. Alot of other kids I know who were cussed out regularly by a parent either grew up to do the same with their own kids or got with a mate that talks to them like a piece of s&*t.

We pay a lot of attention to child abuse and corporal punishment but we often neglect to include the verbal abuse that gets mistaken for discipline. Children aren’t stupid. They know how to read hostility from adults, but unlike adults they can’t just tell you to go eat a you-know-what and move on. Kids absorb all of that negative energy and it’s a crap shoot how they will eventually express it.

I believe adopting what sometimes feels like a no-nonsense, by any means necessary approach to keeping kids out of trouble winds up doing more harm than good. Sure, talking harshly to your kids hardens them to the cruelty of the world and conveys a sense of urgency when they’re doing something wrong, but it also deteriorates what should be the safe haven of a parent/child relationship. When a parent speaks to a kid the same way someone who doesn’t give a crap about them does, it’s got to do something to their self-esteem. Given what we know about child development now, I think we’re all aware of how the no-self-esteem movie ends.

An occasional slip of the tongue won’t do much damage to a young mind but it is important to realize that kids follow their parents’ lead on how to speak and behave. Once, after telling my wife about how Indian call centers are now being used by the IRS, she replied, “Ain’t that a bitch.” Immediately, Liam chimed in like a chipmunked version of Snoop Dogg, yelling “beeeyatch!”

Fortunately, Liam hasn’t backhanded any little girls as a result, but still, we’ve been extra careful about our choice of words. I still screw up every now and then when I step on a toy or when he hurls his tablet like a frisbee. But no matter how annoying his mischief gets, I make sure to never go full on N.W.A. on him. Whenever he or I happen to spit out a no-no word, I explain to him that it’s not cool or funny.

I even apologize to him to let him know that Daddy makes mistakes too and is not above the rules. Hopefully, it will instill an appreciation of respect in my son for others and himself. Later in life, Liam can decide how he wants to express himself, but at least he’ll have an understanding that there’s more than just one way to do it.

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