I’m not a prude. I swear.
I was raised in a devout but non-legalistic home. There was a stretch in grade school and junior high when I swore like the sailor who made other sailors blush. Even today, there are one or two of the lesser expletives that escape my lips on rare occasions. I enjoy sharing a glass of wine, a beer, or a Long Island Iced Tea with friends, or (more rarely) a cigarette or two. I laugh at crude jokes, enjoy high school gross-out movies much more than I should, and find the florid foul language of some movie and TV characters hilarious. I’m not saying I find these things harmless. Not at all. But I do find them funny. While I’m no rebel, I’m no Ned Flanders either.
So it’s with some curiosity that I find myself concerned by Adam Mansbach’s book, “Go the F*** to Sleep!”
I thoroughly understand the sentiment. I put my daughter to bed every night that I’m home. She’s a tenacious fighter, a headstrong spirit, and willing to cajole and manipulate, to lie or feign hunger or thirst, whatever it takes to keep her daddy in the room a little longer. I am a flawed and sinful parent. I get angry and overwhelmed, ashamed and defeated, exhausted and at the end of my rope all in a single night. So when I first saw the book title, and saw a PDF of the first couple pages, I laughed out loud and thought it a clever and harmless bit of bonding between parents over their shared exasperation.
I’m no longer so amused. The book is now a Grade A cultural phenomenon. You can hear it read aloud by Samuel L. Jackson. If you’re only familiar with the title, some of the complaints might seem overwrought. So if you don’t mind the language, you might want to listen before we go any further. Because there have been complaints. Our own Karen Spears Zacharias refers to the “violent language” of the book, language that “demeans children.” Eric Metaxas, of whose book “Go the F*** to Sleep” appears to be a parody, argues:
I’m concerned that vulgarity has now officially entered the mainstream of our culture and I think people have to respectfully stand up and say “no thanks.”…I think we always have to ask ourselves: What kind of a culture do we want to live in? Because if we don’t think about that, and we don’t have the guts to speak up in a gracious and civil manner, then things will inevitably continue to slide in the same direction…Besides, a book with the title “Go the F*** to Sleep” is only one short step away from a hypothetical book written by a husband about his nagging wife, titled “Shut the F*** Up!” Couldn’t that be hilarious?…Also, can’t we admit that “Shut the F*** Up!” could slightly encourage spousal abuse? Don’t we think “Go the F*** to Sleep” might conceivably encourage child abuse? Not even slightly? Really?
On the positive side, there’s something good in knowing that other parents get flustered and feel like failures (the narrator eventually exclaims that he’s “a sh*tty-*ss parent”) when they can’t get their kids to sleep. It’s good to laugh and commiserate. But I find myself persuaded by the criticism:
- The book invites parents to imagine expressing their frustration in a series of ripe expletives. That’s part of what makes it funny, of course, the juxtaposition of thoroughly foul language with the idyllic scene of a parent whispering a bedtime story to a little one. It brings to mind the famous “Landlord Pearl” videos from Will Ferrell. Karen’s right that the sad reality is that many parents do speak to their children this way. It seems like every time I go to the mall, a carnival, or the aquarium, I hear parents cursing not only in front of their children, but at their children. I find it appalling. I’m also concerned — even though I sometimes laugh — at the extreme crudeness of the language in popular entertainment today. Comedies intended for young people in recent years have shown a woman unknowingly using semen for hair-styling product; a young man masturbating with an apple pie in one movie and throwing his pubic hairs out a window and into the mouths of wedding guests in another; and high schoolers imagining their beefy female gym teacher in lingerie in order to prevent climax while engaging in sex acts with their girlfriends. As Eric says, When do we say enough is enough? Is there some point when thoughtful people — and perhaps especially thoughtful Christians and other people of faith — should stand up and call for less crudity and less coarseness in our public culture? Should we object to this book — which tells a toddler to “Shut the f***up and sleep!” or “F*** your stuffed bear, I’m not giving you sh*t!” — before it gets worse? The scary thing about a slippery slope is that no single step further down the slope seems like a big deal — but eventually you look back and realize you’ve descended a long way into the muck.
- It’s also hard to hear language like that (along with the author’s “a hot crimson rage fills my heart”) and not feel an implied menace or threat of violence. Child abuse has long been, and remains today, a deep and pervasive problem in American culture — indeed, in human culture. A healthy culture constructs moral, social and psychological barriers to violence against children. For some people, because of their personality and upbringing, those barriers are thick and all but invincible. For others, they’re precariously thin. I think some of the folks who are saying “Of course no one would ever do that” are overestimating the goodness of millions upon millions of parents, or underestimating just how thin that barrier can be. In fact, given the right (or wrong) circumstances even for them, the barrier might be far thinner than they believe. For some people, it’s wafer thin, and it only takes a little bit more to break it down for their first act of violence against their children. And let’s not pretend that verbal violence does not, even slightly, degrade the barrier against physical violence. That’s usually where the road to physical violence begins.
More neutrally, I wonder if a part of the different responses to the book comes from the different ways in which we experience cursing. If you’re in an environment where those words, when they’re spoken, carry a threat of violence (a testosterone-fueled environment, say), then you’re more likely to perceive that this book has a menacing aspect. If you’re in an environment where those words are 99% of the time used in harmless jest (say, between computer nerds in a cubicle village), then the threat will probably seem remote to you. But remember, those words do carry an implied threat in many places, and it’s not only computer nerds or the enlightened literati who are going to read this book.
Finally, this is going to sound almost unbearably self-righteous, so please know I’m speaking to myself as much as anyone else. But what ever happened to the Philippians 4:8 principle? “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.”
As one friend pointed out, it’s a remarkable and precious thing that my daughter so desires my presence that she will do just about anything to keep me in the room a little longer. She takes comfort in having me near. Even when she’s just lying there, reading a book, it matters to her to have me there. It won’t always be that way. Someday she’ll want to hide from friends when she’s with me, but right now she delights in pointing out her daddy. Someday she’ll want to shut the door to her bedroom, blare the music and pretend that I don’t exist, but right now she wants to be with me as often and for as long as possible.
Rather than imagining cussing her out for her deceptive, scheming ways, isn’t it more pure, more lovely, to reflect on the tiny miracle that my daughter loves me and wants me beside her in the dark?