I don’t think anything has changed my outlook on life so much as having a daughter. If you’ve got kids (and if you haven’t, you might want to bail out of this post right now), you already know what I’m talking about. And in the current phase (aged 5), one of the biggest things is the questions.
They really are relentless. They make me realise, first and foremost, how much I learnt from my own parents – or, to put it another way, how little I found out for myself. And you never know when an absolute killer is going to be sprung on you. Lying on the floor while my daughter allegedly ‘went to sleep’ one night, I was asked, in sequence, ‘Daddy, who made the world?’, ‘Daddy, what’s outside space?’ and ‘Daddy, what happens when we die?’
Treading on eggshells
Answering things like that for someone with a vocabulary of 2000 words is a challenging tutorial in simple, cogent expression. But it’s also a real eye-opener in terms of received ideas, adult assumptions and cultural taboos. What should a child learn, and what should they not learn? What is likely to intrigue, confuse or disturb the child?
The problem is that innocuous topics can quickly slide into Kafkaesque trauma. For example, I was pleased to confirm that, given the size of the universe, the odds on aliens existing were pretty much certain. Then I had to allay the fear that they’d be turning up at our house.
After a few months of that, you’re running a mental slide-rule over every issue and concept that might come up, wondering if you should explain it – or if you could. Homosexuality, religion, burglars… there are thorny topics at every turn.
One thing you can count on is that the child’s questions will cut right to the chase in a way adults’ just don’t – or just daren’t. That came to mind when I read Andy Nattan’s recent post about swearing in copy. In my comment to the post, I pointed to French Connection’s ‘fcuk’ campaign. Clever as those lines may be, I’d have rejected them myself, because I would have heard a little voice asking, ‘Daddy, what does that say?’
Well, what does it say, clever clogs? The sophisticated adult sees the joke, but the cruder meaning is still there, underneath. And talking to children makes you realise how basic, how atavistic, our brains really are. Seeing their unbridled selfishness, hopeless irrationality and vicious spite, you wonder if that’s what we’re like, underneath it all. Arguably, to play with base meaning is to unlock that side of ourselves, so carefully buried over years of growing up.
A mong, friends
The little voice piped up again when I was weighing the two sides of the Ricky Gervais ‘mong’ debate. Gervais maintains that ‘mong’ doesn’t denote ‘disabled person’ any more, and that he should be able to use it, for laughs, with impunity – as he’s been doing on his Twitter feed.
There’s no doubt he’s playing with fire – if vindicated, he could open the floodgates for all those other fun-to-say but deeply regrettable terms of my youth – like ‘spazmo’, ‘flid’, ‘spakka’, ‘cripple’, ‘cambo’ and so on, ad nauseam.
When I was younger, and didn’t really give a fcuk about very much at all, I’d have thought that was brilliant. Free speech! Let’s just have a laugh! No censorship! But now, I just fear having to answer the question: ‘Daddy, what’s a mong?’
Just what is a mong, Ricky? We’ve heard a lot about what it’s not, but you’ve only had to deal with righteously indignated adults, not straightforwardly curious children. So no-one’s yet asked that simple, devastating question. So how will you answer, facing a five-year-old? Er… a silly person?
Humbug. We all know what a mong is, just like we all know what ‘fcuk’ says. In the eyes of a child, cynicism shows up as clear as day.
Do I sound like a prude? I’m not, really. I’m just someone who takes the power of language seriously, not least in its ability to shape young minds. As Morrissey sang, ‘heavy words are so lightly thrown’. Before we throw them, we should think about where they’ll land.