There’s a scene at the dinner table in E.T. where young Elliot is trying to convince his family of E.T.’s existence. They don’t believe him and, tired of his older brother’s teasing, he jumps up and shouts, “It was nothing like that, penis breath!”
My five-year old has adopted this phrase. This is the second time he’s seen the movie but the first time he’s picked up on the sophistication of language. My wife and I have seen it as many times as the number of years since it was first released(1982). As the landmark movie of our generation, E.T. bonded us decades before we knew each other: we both cherished our E.T. action figure. Who knew that could make a baby?
OK, it didn’t make the baby but the iconic alien will forever be associated with our nascent family. Six summers ago, E.T. was playing in Grant Park when my wife leaned forward to tell me she was pregnant. And now, E.T. has introduced our family to penis breath.
The kids giggled, I giggled, then my son said, “Wait, did he just call him penis breath?” I looked over at him on the couch and couldn’t see his eyes. He was grinning as if he’d just been given side-door access to a forbidden kingdom. He said it a dozen more times—my reaction mirroring the reaction of Elliot’s mom—then quoted the entire line, “He said, ‘It was nothing like that, penis breath!’” He was exhausting himself and I tried downplaying it, but when he was still saying it at bed time, I could only ignore it.
Now that he’s understanding not just words but the context in which to use them—I’m sure at breakfast tomorrow someone will be a penis breath—I should step up my filtering of language. But who the hell am I kidding? Inappropriate language is as natural to him as his awareness of his penis.
It must’ve been a year ago—the record of my parental negligence transcends singular dates—when he tried to scare his mom coming around the corner. Holding his toothbrush like a sword, he said, “Mom, Mom did I scare the shit out of you?”
This is not a phrase we (note how I switched pronouns) use with the kids but I’m sure they hear it plenty. But the most egregious breakdown of our—all right, fine, my—already flimsy filter was when my three-year old girl was playing with her cars, lining them up in the rays of morning sun streaming in from the window. I stopped fixing breakfast and craned my ear from the adjacent room. Her cars were talking to each other: “the fuck are you doing? Hey, the fuck are you doing? Hey, fuck are you doing?” It sounded like I was driving.
“Hey,” I said weakly, stripped bare of any authority. “Honey, we don’t say that.” She smiled over her shoulder and went back to playing, omitting that one word from her act. She knew exactly what I was talking about and exactly how it was used.
It’s obvious that I should be more vigilant to avoid public shame but that hasn’t worked so well thus far. Perhaps instead I could help them work on their audience.