A Time and Place for Everything: Children, Manners, and Code-Switching
On Boxing Day, the children and I drove the five hours from Los Angeles to Carmel. (My mother wants very badly to see her grandchildren, pandemic or no. My feeling throughout all this is that the “most vulnerable adult” gets to make the final call on gatherings. Debating that point is not the purpose of today’s newsletter.)
On the way, Heloise and David discussed, unprompted, some rules for Grandma’s house. “We always chew with our mouths closed,” David offered. “We listen to grandma read us poetry, and we put away our phones,” Heloise remembered. This discussion of etiquette went on for some time, until David added brightly: “Also, we don’t say ‘motherfucker.’”
I laughed so hard that I nearly swerved into oncoming traffic on Highway 46. “My boy, I’d love it if you didn’t say that around your mother or me, either.”
“Or me,” added Heloise. In my rearview mirror, I saw my son nod solemnly.
“I know, dadda, some words we only use with our friends.” I affirmed that truth for him.
Part of WASP culture, as I’ve written before, is the idea that virtually all things are permissible, but there is a “time, place, and manner” for all those things. A vital part of education is learning what is done where. One learns to defecate in the toilet and not in one’s diaper. One learns to touch oneself behind closed doors. One learns to use a salad fork for the first course, which is not the same as the cake fork for the last, and you don’t touch the first fork until the hostess has touched hers. One learns that one older relative likes it when the door is held for her, while another finds it patronizing. One learns that frank discussions about sex or politics are delightful, but best saved for an audience appreciative of one’s candor.
One learns that singing along to the explicit version of rap songs is fine, but those words are not to be repeated in certain company. Some parents try to block their children from listening to foul language; the WASP strategy which I inherited and have embraced in my turn is to permit all things, discuss all things, and help the children discern when they can safely rap along – and when they can’t.
There is one grand exception. Their mother and I have discussed the “n-word” with both children. My ex-wife’s mother is Black, and Heloise and David love and adore their many Black relatives, but they know that their cousins are permitted words that they are not. Whatever 23andMe says about my bunnies’ ancestry, the world will mostly think them white, and they need to be mindful that that conveys both privilege and limitation. They may use Afro-Colombian folk remedies and a few words of that dialect at home, but they are still required to fall silent whenever the “n-word” appears in a song. There is no “time, place, or manner” exception here.
As recent events have reminded us, social media has broken down many of the traditional boundaries between public and private. My children must navigate a world where their childish pronouncements may come back to haunt them if a camera is involved. Being filmed saying the word “fuck” in a song will be defensible in a way that a racial slur will not. The difference is that one is subject to “time, place and manner” usage – and one is not.
I correct my children’s grammar, but not because of an aversion to slang. Rather, I want to teach them to be able to “code-switch” effectively. Just as they speak Spanish with their abuela and proper English with their grandmother, they can speak their own demotic when alone with their friends. “Can Heloise and me have cookies,” David asks, to which I respond, “Repeat the question.” He rolls his eyes cheerfully, phrases the query correctly, and receives the answer for which he longs. I have heard him on the phone with his best friend, Yael, and the vulgar Spanglish they exchange seems to be a language entirely unto themselves. I honor it.
I belong to a private online discussion group, the vast majority of whose participants are Christian conservatives. Many of them are parents of young children, and they talk often about ways to help their own little llamas resist what they regard as the toxic tide of contemporary culture. They are worried about porn, and the increased acceptance and celebration of trans identity. They talk of firewalls, both moral and technological. They do not trust the outside world. Like sailors traumatized by shipwrecks, they do not wish their children ever to go to sea.
My children’s mother and I have slightly different concerns. We worry less about sexual permissiveness than we do about a culture of sneering certainties, in which ambiguity and relativism are seen as vices, and empathy itself is to be husbanded, bestowed only on those declared deserving. This is not to say that we don’t want our children to take up causes in which they believe. Passions are permitted, be they romantic or political – but passion that leads one to declare whole groups of people to be wicked or unworthy is not virtue. Contra Barry Goldwater, extremism in the defense of anything is the very definition of vice, particularly if that extremism leads to a dismissal of compassion for those with whom you disagree.
My children know my story. They know the life I led before, and the life I lead now. They know that their father has battled demons; they know those demons cost their family a very great deal. They have heard me say, again, and again, how sorry I am for the choices I made that hurt them. They also know that I am still here, and that I fell from tenured professorship and financial comfort to homelessness. They see how proud I am to work in a grocery store, and how much I adore my coworkers, just as I adored my colleagues on campus. I remind my children that the one thing that carried me through hospitals and homelessness and handcuffs was good manners, and the sense that wherever I was, whomever I was with, I could adapt and make friends. A gentleman is a gentleman wherever he goes.
I hope desperately that my children do not fight my dragons. I know that they will have dragons of their own to battle in time. I cannot speak to them of the importance of looking to Jesus, because I neither know nor look to Him. I cannot speak of resting on Torah, or finding quiet inside through meditation. I have so few tools and truths to give them besides my love! What I can give them, though, is an ability to navigate rather than hide from a frightening and angry world. What I can give them is the model for how to go anywhere, and make oneself welcome. What I can give them is a reminder that living a life of radical kindness means constant flexibility and adaptation, and a willingness to see the beautiful where others see only ugliness.
These are the only gifts I have, but they are not without value.
Heloise already has learned to code-switch skillfully. Her bat mitzvah is next month, and she is studying her Torah portion with her teacher. (She will need to give a speech about Parashat Bo.) Even if she’s only going to see her “synagogue friends” on Zoom, she likes to dress more conservatively; Heloise is a master of the three-quarter sleeve and has several long skirts in her closet. When she’s chatting with her secular friends from her public school, they trade videos of “Tik-Tok dances” which involve curious gyrations -- and rather less modest outfits.
Only a fool would say my daughter must choose one of these two paths. If she decides to choose only one, that is her right; if she decides to live with a foot in both worlds, that will be wonderful also.
We have set for her an example of how to do just that.