The Lingo of Bluff-Tough Love

When you adopt an older child, you not only get the child himself, but you inherit the language of the families he’s lived with prior to yours. Thus, the Little Monster entered our home three years ago with not only a startling storehouse of profanity but with an altogether unfamiliar lexicon.

Such as, “I need to go Number Two.”

Number Two? What makes that particular job Number Two? Why second fiddle? Second best? Because, admit it, Number Two feels pretty good. Number Two feels A Number One. My dog illustrates the feeling when she takes one of her petite dumps and then races around the yard, feeling light and free and unfettered, no longer weighed down by life! We should all do the same, except it would be difficult, not to mention unseemly, to dash around the house with our pants around our ankles.

LM didn’t learn Number Two from us, in fact he’s never heard it uttered from my lips, but over three years later it’s still his euphemism of choice.

He might as well be speaking a Spanish word, it’s so culturally unfamiliar to me. It gives me pause. What would I have called it had I been the one cleaning it from his diapers and subsequently potty-training him? I come from a no-nonsense family and I probably would have called it what it was, albeit a G-rated version. My family on the maternal side is more linguistically than numerically inclined, so we always used an abbreviation, although I didn’t know it was an abbreviation nor what it stood for until I was an adult. I suppose I thought a Be Em referred to a puzzling existential epiphany one might experience while on the can. In the same way, I never knew why my Dad was always including Adam when he whistled every morning, “Up and At ‘Em!” I thought maybe it was a biblical saying, although that would have been the extent of religion in our household.

I grew up with a different lexicon than the one I can use with the Little Monster. I don’t use words like puka, pau, ono, kapu, and akamai, because for some reason when I lapse into the pidgin of my Hawaii childhood, I also lapse into an intertwined offensive sense of humor (what is now called cultural incompetency during long training sessions at academic institutions) and also nobody would understand what the hell I’m saying. “You going come stay or what?” Huh? Although it strikes me now that when I tell the Little Monster to do something, his slow-motion cooperation while doing seven other things along the way is the living embodiment of “going come stay.”

Besides the cultural language, there’s an entire family code that I can’t use. My mother, Tutu (Hawaiian for Grandma), recently reminded me that she often said to me and my brothers, “Do that one more time and I’m going to be wiping you off the wall.” She could say this because we knew it would never happen. It was code for “I’m serious.” And it was funny. And it worked.

Because he’s akamai, the Little Monster has indeed learned some of my family’s jargon. One day I said to him, “That’s your last warning.”

“I know,” he sighed. “I’m in the doghouse. I’m on thin ice. I’m in hot water. I’d better turn it around. I’m this close,” and he held up his thumb and forefinger. If he’d come from a different family, he would have added, “Yadda yadda yadda.” He has not yet perfected the eye roll that comes from my husband’s side of the family, but that will come with puberty, I’m sure. But all of the rest is mortifyingly from ineffectual me. To him these things are far from a last warning: they’re a running joke. Clearly I’m doing him no favors.

When my mom said, “Do that one more time and I’m going to be wiping you off the wall,” hooee! we knew she meant business. We got our okoles moving before we got the flyswatter.

Recently Tutu almost made the same threat to the Little Monster but caught herself in time. I actually saw her bite her tongue. Because it wouldn’t be funny with the Little Monster. Because he knows it could happen.

An acquaintance recently told me that he tells his little girl that if she doesn’t stop whatever it is she’s doing, he’s going to sell her to the gypsies. I didn’t know one could say “gypsy” anymore, but it wouldn’t have the same ring to say, “I’m going to fair-trade you to the Roma.” Regardless, neither would work for a child who’s been passed around already to too many families.

Tutu used to say, “Get in the car right now or I’m leaving without you.” And once or twice she did, leaving me and my brother in a vast parking lot. We thought it was a great adventure and pretended to be Hansel and Gretel, leaving a trail of popcorn. Because we knew she’d be back in her cherry red VW Beetle, which she was, burning rubber with steam pouring from her ears. Far from teaching us a lesson, she’d reinforced what we already knew: we were always safe even when we were pains in the ass. Tell the Little Monster I’m leaving him behind? Or actually leave him behind? Natch. Again, he’s been there and done that.

How about threatening bed without dinner, the tried and true method of Maurice Sendak? No can do. Not only been there done that but illegal to skip meals for foster kids, you’ll be happy to know. Now that I can legally do it doesn’t mean I will.

So we struggle to come up with a replacement code for “I’m serious. I mean it. I really, really mean it. This is your last warning. Don’t make me count. Three, two…”

So, for instance, “If you don’t start remembering to flush Number Two, I’m going to…”

To what?

Nothing, that’s what.

That’s the underlying message he needs to hear behind everything we say.

Nothing’s going to happen, no matter what you do. You will be fed, and you will be kept safe, and you won’t be sold (although if a really good price is offered and you are being a little turd that day and the deal would fund my one-way plane ticket to Costa Rica and a modest retirement, it might give me pause, just for a second. Or two).


I would really, really like it if you flushed.

I mean it.

We have of course had to devise some creative consequences for the Little Monster, and I had to grow a pair to start enforcing them when a parent coach at Harborview pretty much called me a pathetic wimp for my lack of follow-through. “That child has got your number,” she said. That would be Number Two, to be exact, which is how I was allowing myself to be treated.

We’ve also come up with some family code that works pretty well, but it’s a family secret. If anyone outside of the family learned it, I’d have to sell them to the department that conducts the trials and writes the manual for Prevention of Cultural Incompetencies and Way Too Many Syllables in An Era in Which You Can’t Make Fun of Any Group Unless You’re In It and Even Then You’re Playing With Fire, Bucko.

I will, you know. I mean it. Just watch me. Three, two…

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2 thoughts on “The Lingo of Bluff-Tough Love

  1. Woman, you are so beautiful and so funny.

    I love this line:
    Far from teaching us a lesson, she’d reinforced what we already knew: we were always safe even when we were pains in the ass. Tell the Little Monster I’m leaving him behind? Or actually leave him behind? Natch. Again, he’s been there and done that.

    You are a great mom. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Leave it to a writer to parse family lingo in such an effecting and entertaining way… Funny and sweet.

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