Let your freak flag fly but hold the F-bombs

Mason, 11, asked me recently when he could start buying “explicit” songs, because he hates it when the clean versions cut out. He has no interest currently in using the language (he gets mad at any foul-mouthed classmates, teammates, or opponents). He just wants to hear the song as intended.

I was proud of his artistic integrity, though rendered speechless for a moment by the request. “Let me talk it over with your mother,” I eventually replied. Translation? “Time out!”

On one hand, I am the former lead singer of a rock band, for whom cussing was second nature. If I could sneak a syncopated swear into an angry song, it was cursing cordon cool. On the other hand, I am a prudish parent, who over the last few years has pruned the explicit tunes from his music collection so that there are no surprises when the MP3 players are on shuffle.

This happened at a recent cookout we attended. The well-intentioned hosts put their music collection on shuffle, and for the first few songs all was well. Then Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” entered the rotation, tearing the motherf***in’ roof off the family-friendly atmosphere. A mad parental scramble ensued to skip the iPod to the next tune.

I cast no stones at the curse-word glass house. I am not immune from inducing a wide-eyed, musical surprise now and then. I was driving Mason to basketball the other night, and he wanted some pre-game Maroon 5 to pump himself up. The first song was one from my cycling playlist: “Harder To Breathe.” Just before it launched into the chorus, Adam Levine reminded us we were not fit to f***in’ tread on the ground he was walking on.

It was indeed getting harder to breathe. I glanced sideways at Mason. His eyebrows were raised, with a slight smile curling from his lips. He sent a little nod in my direction, letting me know that he knew what was up.

He truly is a tween, striving to keep up with his older brother while still clutching his youthful innocence. He is the ultimate Peter Pan, declaring frequently that he will never move away from home. Yet he wants to soar among teenage eagles at the nearby basketball court whenever he sees a pickup game brewing. By our measure, he’s still in need of some shelter, but there’s only so much that we can provide for so long.

I’m still wrestling with his explicit request. He followed it up with an one-line email a few days later: “Can I get the explicit version of Castles by B.O.B.?” I’ve continued to stall, because he already bought the clean version, so it’s not about getting that particular song (though I’m not a fan of its drug references, regardless of language). I recognize that his real aim is to shed some shackles. The decision rests on whether we think he’s ready to be responsible with music that has more adult themes and language while continuing to refrain from course behavior himself.

I don’t want to stop Mason from ever swearing. A well-executed curse word can create just the right amount of shock, and/or emphasis in the right situation. I just want to prevent his younger brother, Benjamin, 7, from starting too soon. I had thought the parenting training wheels provided by Sam, our teenager, would better prepare us for how to handle these moments of independence exertion by either Mason or Ben. But the cascading education we had expected from raising three boys that are roughly the same years apart never has materialized. Every situation remains a new one, given their three very different personalities.

I want them to be free-spirited, of course. I want them to be brash in the right circumstances. I wish everyday they would be more expressive, conversant and mature. But I also want to preserve their innocence for as long as possible. There will be plenty of time for them to face the evils — benign and malignant — of the world. It need not start on their iPod.