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 real
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 "f**k".
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 place.
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 word.
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 swear
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 "Belgium".
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 different one.
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.