Before becoming a parent, one has a different perspective on many things. Babies are cute fashion accessories, misbehaving toddlers are evidence of bad parenting, and "farting" is the best term – clear, to the point, neither coy nor unnecessarily crude – to describe what happens when we break wind, pass gas, or let one rip.
As a child, I was raised to include "fart" in the same category as "hell," "crap," and "stupid." Toot was the term used in our house, a word that invariably submerged me in a sense of impotent shame. Simultaneously nerdy and embarrassingly onomatopoeic, "toot" (or, worse, "tooted," "tooter," or – my Dad’s favourite – "rooter tooter") was a word best left unsaid. That, I now perceive, was the parenting genius that motivated its selection in the first place.
My adult life affords few occasions for the use of the major euphemisms for flatulence (stink bomb, Dutch oven, butt trumpet … I was going to add "cutting the cheese," but actually, there are so many opportunities to use that one). Don’t get me wrong – I do not claim to be immune to the phenomenon, which occurs an average of 10-15 times per day for a normal adult human. I just find that in most cases, the event is better left unacknowledged. Even the courtesies of marriage can usually be met with a casual, "You might want to stay away from the danger zone here." The word "fart" now exists roughly in the same category as "snot" and "barf" – not a word I use every day, but no longer a subversively thrilling swear-word either. So when one of my children’s-lit students recommended Walter the Farting Dog for our class on picture books, I was sufficiently impressed to purchase a copy.
This was, needless to say, before I had children. I thought the book was funny and child-centered, following in the scatological tradition of Jonathan Swift, Roald Dahl, and Robert Munsch. As an instructor of children’s literature, I was steeped in the idea that children’s books are the product of adult imperialism. The grown-ups who write, publish, and buy children’s books co-opt the representation of childhood, indoctrinating children with stories that serve adult interests (lullabies! forcing children to sleep! – alphabets! forcing children to learn!).
Then I became a parent. And suddenly sleeping and learning didn’t seem like such bad things. Socialization and moral indoctrination seemed less like brainwashing and more like good parenting. Walter the Farting Dog languished on a little-used bookshelf while Bub and Pie explored books about letters and colours and pleasant piggies who would invariably fall into peaceful slumber on the last page. And then one day, the Pie unearthed Walter and I realized: This is a terrible book.
The illustrations are hideous. It is full of double-entendres, most of them aimed at adults. Each page features a graphic rendering of the puffs of air emanating from Walter’s rear while he plays with the children, gets blamed for the surreptitious emissions of Uncle Irv, and scares away a pair of stereotypically-rendered burglars who are making off with the family’s VCR.
The book is terrible because it is exactly what I thought it wasn’t: imperialistic. The whole point of scatological humour is that it breaks taboos. The parent’s role is to forbid – and reading bedtime stories about farting does little other than rob children of the fundamental joy of taboo-breaking. It is the child’s job to joke about farting, and the adult’s job to conceal all amusement. If the grown-ups start cracking scatological jokes, what’s left for a child to do?
(This, by the way, is what is meant by boundaries. Unless I am very much mistaken in my reading of the introductory chapters of Boundaries with Kids, boundaries are not about requirements and prohibitions so much as they are about a clear division of labour. Farting jokes and maniacal laughter = the kids’ side of the boundary. Stern looks and embarrassing euphemisms = the adults’ side.)
To be sure, farting need not be forbidden to be funny. It has its own inherent comic potential. Bub’s diet these days consists almost entirely of broccoli and chick peas, so our lives are accompanied by a constant rumbling soundtrack. Mostly these pops and rat-a-tats go unnoticed, but the other day one of them occurred at bath-time and Bub turned to me with a grin of delight. "Mama, did you hear that?" he asked, and you could just see the wheels turning as he realized, I did that with my bum!
There is a kind of natural pleasure in making ridiculous sounds with ridiculous parts of one’s body. Nevertheless, it is (or ought to be) an inviolable part of the child-adult contract that the child makes the farting jokes while the adult looks on with well-feigned disapproval.
Unfortunately, the Pie did not get the memo. So every night, now, she pulls out the book, gleefully exclaiming, "Farting Dog? Farting Dog?" and hubby and I respond with the following story:
Billy and Betty brought Walter home from the dog pound. "Nobody wanted him," said Billy. "But we love him!" said Betty. Their mother made them give Walter a bath. "His stomach must be upset!" she said. Then Father said it was time for him to go to the vet. The veterinarian examined him and put him on a special diet: he ate carrots, corn on the cob, french fries, and cat food. Then Uncle Irv came over.("Uncle Irv!" Pie shrieks ecstatically at this point. "Uncle Irv!")
One day, Father said Walter had to go back to the dog pound. "No, no!" exclaimed Betty and Billy. But Father had made up his mind. That night, Walter ate a whole box of dog biscuits and then fell asleep on the couch. Some burglars came, and Walter …um …scared them away.("Burglars! Run away!" Pie shrieks.)
"You saved us!" cried Mother and Father when they got up the next morning. "You saved the silverware! You saved our VCR!" And they all lived happily ever after.