Swearing in front of your children
taking sides: potty mouth
Does swearing in front of our kids teach them to use 'bad'
language, or does vilifying swear words only increase their appeal?
Here, two mums explain their opposing viewpoints on what's
acceptable language when there are small ears around.
I swear to keep it
by Liz Breslin
A secret's something we don't say, isn't it, Mum?" asked
Dylan, when he was four. Then he went on. "Like f**k. We don't say
f**k, do we mum. Is f**k a secret?" Well, no - but it might as well
be. A couple of extremely unscientific surveys (wine, friends,
coffee, and colleagues) revealed that the majority of
my peers aim never to swear in front of their offspring. Some of
them have even gone to the lengths of prepping visiting childless
adults about the need to supplement "s**t" with
"shivers." They say "far out" instead of
This personal parental choice is supported
by some schools. Driving into town with my twins, I took the
opportunity to continue my research. What, I asked, are bad words
at school? They confirmed that "stupid", "dumb" and "idiot" are
forbidden swear words, along with the obvious language that is
censored in the media (like in this article, unfortunately) and by
what we call polite society.
Swearing has its place; it's sometimes the
instinctual, honest, emotional reaction. I want my kids to see me
as a real, feeling person, to see how I react and cope when I am
being really me. I am not me saying "shivers" if, ten minutes late
already, I burn the toast again. In fact I rather agree with the
great American poet, Kim Addonizio, in her poem, "F**k," when she
says, "And if you wouldn't/say anything but Mercy or Oh my/or Land
sakes, well then/I don't want to know you anyway/and I don't give a
f**k what you think/of my poem."
Lest you think I am advocating a potty-mouthed
poverty of vocabulary, let me clarify. As a mother, my job, no, my
daily privilege is to help my kids on their journey towards
adulthood. And during that time I will occasionally swear. In front
of them. Not at them. I wouldn't encourage my kids to swear. Nor
would I let them drink wine. But I certainly don't wait until
they're in bed before I go for a run, sit down and write or have a
glass of wine with dinner, just as I don't censor my own language
all day. I'm a multidimensional adult all the time,
not a daytime mum and a part-time me. And they, and any other kids,
are perfectly smart enough to understand that there are some things
kids do and some things adults do. Sometimes.
I'm not arguing for swearing as a daily default.
As an English language teacher, my standard response to kids saying
"f**k" in class was to put up on the board, "the f**king f**ker's
f**king gone and f**king f**ked up and f**king f**ked off again." I
then got them to identify and replace nouns, verbs and adjectives
with appropriate alternatives. There are so many great words to use
in the English language. Some of them are considered profane.
And that, in essence, is the same approach I
take with my kids. There are sometimes more apt adjectives to use.
And they, at five, are old enough to learn which situations it is
appropriate to swear in. This is, for our kids, absolutely no
situations at all (unless they are pretending to be Sam Hunt doing
a poetry reading). But if they exist in their "far out" fluffy
world devoid of all colourful language, how can they begin to work
this out? It's about what's appropriate for a time, an age, a
Context is everything. Swearing is no longer the
Big Bad Wolf it used to be. We have so-called "bad" language
embedded in expressions of surprise, pain and elation. And research
shows that the actual words we use only account for around 7% of
our communication. Motherhood has taught me that there can be as
much menace in the words, "Clear up that mess now," as in any
thoughtless cuss that escapes when the toast burns.
Swearing, anyway, is not a static thing. "F**k"
is a lot less powerful as a statement than when I was a kid. And
the Wife of Bath in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales talked
about her "queynte" in a way no respectable lady would these days.
Not that I believe Chaucer to be popular on primary school reading
lists, my point is simply that kids are going to be exposed to all
kinds of language and we might as well get real about it.
Swearing is a linguistic norm. If you want a
home-grown example of how so-called swearing can be completely
normalised in most homes, take the successful car campaign - BUGGER
- and all the tyre covers we don't even blink at.
If anything, it is the dumbing down of language,
bad or otherwise, that bothers me. Let's not have one language for
us and one kind of Orwellian Newspeak for our kids; that would be
dumb, idiotic, f**king stupid, frankly. Let's teach them that
language is a rich, varied and powerful tool with which to express
ourselves. Let's not make f**k a secret; it's just a
Liz Breslin is a freelance writer based in Hawea Flat, New
Zealand. Her short stories, poetry, and articles, including a
series of opinion pieces called "Mum's the Word", have been
published in New Zealand and abroad. She has also written a play
called Losing Faith: A Tale of PND, exploring the issues of
postnatal depression through the constraints of coffee group
culture, which she is hoping to stage in 2010.
I swear not to
by Laura Williamson
Mark Twain once wrote, "There ought to be a room in every
house to swear in." Before I had a child, I admit, this was pretty
much every room at my place. I curse like a midshipman. I use
them all: the F-word, the D-word, the S-word, and the A-word. A
little blasphemy, I believe, is good for the soul, and every dirty
word has its place. But I don't swear in front of my son. This
wasn't a conscious decision; I just find that,
when I'm around my four-year-old, swearing feels wrong.
Cursing is certainly an ingrained part of human
expression. Almost all languages have swear words, and, in almost
all of these languages, swearing is taboo. Most swearing is related
either to religion or the human body, but it can vary. In The
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams pokes fun at this -
the most abhorrent word in Hitchhiker's Universe is
Whatever the meaning of the words themselves,
profanity is a great way to blow off steam without hitting someone
or causing property damage. It's just a matter of knowing where and
when to use it. Busting out the F-word in church or in the
supermarket line behind your neighbour and her three young, rosy-
cheeked daughters is probably not wise; screaming "die, s**thead,
die!" when you're alone in your car and have been cut off by some
guy in a Hummer blathering on his mobile is just fine. Surely these
are subtleties our children can understand?
No, I would argue, they are not. If there's one
thing children crave, it's clear rules to live by. They do not
need, nor do they want, to be told that some things are okay at
certain times, but not at others. Talking about "Mummy and Daddy"
language, or that it's acceptable to use certain expressions at
home but not at school is just plain confusing.
Maybe, you say, but there are lots of things
adults do that children are not allowed to. Drinking coffee, for
example, using sharp knives, or driving. This is true, but none of
these things are hurtful or offensive to other people, and all of
them are easily explained to kids; coffee is hot, knives and cars
are dangerous, and both could harm you. The boundaries are clear,
the consequences evident. Words are not so simple.
I have wondered if avoiding cursing might invest
swear words with power, by making them mysterious and therefore
more attractive. On reflection, though, I decided that our job as
parents is to model good behaviour. Doing this does not necessarily
make bad behaviour more appealing. Children pick up quickly on the
power of saying what is taboo without our help; the giggling of
their friends or a sharp look from the teacher tells them all they
need to know.
Of course, self-preservation comes into it as
well. I did catch myself uttering a profanity or two around my son
early on (most memorably the time he poured orange juice on my
keyboard when I was 12 minutes away from a column deadline). I
immediately had a vision of myself five years on, sitting
sheepishly at a parent-teacher conference about the potty-speak my
child had been hurling about during playtime, words he'd told the
teacher he had learned from me. No thank you. My son will have
plenty of opportunities to learn swear words elsewhere (other kids
at playtime will probably be a rich source); there's no need for me
to add to the list.
In fact, by watching my language, I've
discovered that there are other, more productive ways of dealing
with anger and frustration. Sure, swearing can feel good, but why
not encourage our children to say what is bothering them out loud,
or to explain to another child why they are feeling angry, instead
of telling them to p**s off? I know there are moments in my life
that would have turned out a lot better if I had done this.
I'm not perfect. Every now and then, most often
when I'm trying to load a new piece of software or make my phone
banking work, I slip up. And if my child's around, I can guarantee
he'll be regurgitating my bad language in about five minutes: "Mum,
why won't my f**king Lego tower stand up?" I don't like it when
this happens, but it's a good reminder as to why I keep it clean at
home. Still, sometimes the urge is too strong, and, as Twain
suggests, I do keep a room in my house to swear in.
It's not a particular place. In fact, it can be
any room I'm in at the time - just so long as my son is in a
Laura Williamson is a Wanaka-based freelance writer
and editor who has been published in newspapers here and abroad
over the last fifteen years. Her work has appeared in Brain, Child
magazine, she writes a regular column for Spoke, a New Zealand
cycling publication, she is the Wanaka correspondent for QT
Magazine and has written for the Otago Daily Times.
As seen in OHbaby!
magazine Issue 7: 2009
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