Being the good uncles I imagine us to be, my husband and I took our 10-year-old nephew out to dinner at the mall this past weekend, yet another step in the long process of middle-aged suburbanization my life has undergone in the last few years. I'm not complaining, though, because it's an oddly uplifting experience to have the staff at the video-game store mistake me for his father.
But there were no video games involved on this trip, because we're focused more on making sure he reads in addition to his slavish devotion to Nintendo and the Disney Channel. (I do try to model for him the example that you can be both a bookworm and a gaming addict.) Given the focus on reading, when we got our table at the restaurant — a big chain affair that's loud and bustling enough that the general commotion raised by one 10-year-old isn't that noticeable — we made sure he got the kid's menu that comes with crayons and puzzles and word games.
Waiting for our food to arrive, we delved into the word-scramble puzzle: ''How many words can you make from the letters in GIRAFFE?''
I actually love these kinds of games, so I had to slow myself down and let him puzzle them out for himself with some minor assists. We seemed to hit a stumbling block after finding ''rage,'' so I pointed out ''fig.'' He jotted that onto the list in red and then had a little inspiration.
''I have one!'' he said. ''F-A-G!''
Things got strangely silent in my head for a moment, the prelude to the mental scrambling for purchase that I assume accompanies every parent's realization that it's time to have a very special and very important conversation. Does he understand what he said? What do I say? Am I going to screw this up?
I managed to stay pretty even and conversational, while still being very firm in explaining that he should not use that word. I found he didn't even really know what it meant, just that he had heard an older relative — from the other side of the family, I feel compelled to say — use it while playing video games.
I love my Xbox, but man that thing has really created a toxic and juvenile culture of language. It's why I don't bother to play online often — I can't stand the unrelenting torrent of gay-hating and racist language that too many people spew when protected by the cloak of anonymity.
Anyway, I explained to him that ''fag'' is a word that people use to hurt and degrade people like his Uncle Sean and Uncle Cavin. Will the message stick? I hope so. But, of course, there are no guarantees, and like any other kid he'll find himself exposed to that word and others every day throughout his childhood. Adults won't be there every time to explain why some words mean things that shouldn't be said. Sadly, some adults will actually be saying those very things.
In the end, though, he's just a kid. I didn't belabor the lesson I wanted to give because I know he's not hateful and I know an interminable lecture from me won't accomplish as much as just being there for him. It's never about what he can do to make us feel more comfortable, it's about what we can do to make sure he's got the best head start on life.
That's the best way, I believe, to make sure the lesson's learned.