I’m as guilty as the next parent for letting electronic devices do a little free babysitting for me while I knuckle down and catch up on the housework or sleep. And over the last few years I have noticed a gradual shift in what my son likes to do with screen-based entertainment. Currently, it seems it’s less about playing games and more about using YouTube to watch other people play games.
And for the most part it been an okay deal. My son was into watching The Diamond Minecart, who is aware a lot of his audience comprises people under the age of ten, as opposed to SkyDoesMinecraft, who has saltier language than a sailor at the annual “Get Ya Salt Out” salty language competition.
But then two things happened. Because of the general disruption of loud YouTubing at 7am on a Saturday morning when I do some intense catching up on checking the inside of my eyelids for leaks, my son started watching YouTube on the iPad with headphones. Combined with this was the feature of YouTube videos ending with a list of recommendations, not really knowing who the viewing audience actually is.
So I was a little taken aback last night when, in tucking him off to bed having brushed teeth and done stories, he asked me “Dad, what’s a faggot?”
Admittedly, I wasn’t too surprised, as the previous week he asked what “teabagging” was.
My mind went in two different ways. Of course there was the obligatory “What an incredibly irresponsible father I am and need to immediately turn myself in to child protection services” mantra, which, after years of chewing at the back of my mind is getting easier to subdue. The second direction was “What do I tell him?”
Although my private life tends to be a thin tissue of lies that seem alright at the time but later becomes a raging awkward social monster that I have to deal with while cursing myself for not telling the truth in the first place, when it comes to my son I have always tried to be honest. This began when he was quite young when I refused to baby my language for him. That isn’t a “birdie”; it’s a “peacock”. We’re not in a “brum brum”; I’m driving a “car”. Don’t call that a “monster”; it’s “The great and terrible Cthulhu who waits dreaming in his house at R’lyeh”. It’s gratifying years later when he sometimes pulls out words that are three syllables or longer in general conversation, and I can barely contain my pride.
So I began by asking where he had heard it. And, yes, it was a Let’s Play of a computer game on YouTube. “You’re a faggot, Harry,” was the context. I took a deep breath, and plunged in.
“A faggot…” I began. I outlined that for a long time in our society, people who identify as gay have been seen with fear and/or loathing. As such, there are bad names for gay, and faggot is one of them. And people sometimes call each other faggot as an insult. And that faggot was once a word meaning “bundle of sticks”.
Actually, it was less like a lecture and more like a conversation. He was initially frightened that he had done something wrong, but was engaged with listening to me. When I told him faggot used to have a different meaning, he chimed in to say that he knew gay once meant happy. Ultimately, I want him to understand that the world of words is a large and powerful place. To use a word like faggot as an insult is also demeaning to a whole group of people. I told him I didn’t want him using that word, and he agreed. We also agreed to have a longer conversation about some of the things he’s watching on the Tube of Yous.
My instinct is to not shy away from difficult moments with “Uh, I’ll tell you when you’re older,” and instead engage them head on now with the intention to build a social responsible young man who might be able to one day engage with his peers in telling them that faggot is not an appropriate word to use unless they are collecting firewood. My son is going to engage with media in places where I don’t have direct control over it, and being open to his questions about what he has seen and heard is the first step in helping provide a framework for understanding the greater world out there. I want him to be polite and socially responsibly, and most importantly, know who Cthulhu is.