When I was pregnant, I listened to rapper 50 Cent’s song “P.I.M.P.” so often that my husband worried our daughter’s first word would be “mother f ## er.” I even contemplated playing rap music during labor: what better music to accompany screaming and swearing in pain? As it turned out, I didn’t play any music during my delivery, and I promised my (wholesome Midwestern) husband that I would refrain from cursing in front of our daughter. Yet when she did eventually learn a few choice words, I couldn’t muster any conviction in telling her they were “bad” words. Perhaps this is because of my own unorthodox upbringing, in which I often heard adults curse, but never heard profane language used in anger at another person. Thus, swear words had little power, mystery, or the lure of the forbidden. They were just what you said when you stubbed your toe.
I’ve always been puzzled when my friends became parents and immediately adopted curse-free households. As far as I could tell, this produced kids obsessed with catching adults accidentally swearing: “Daddy said a bad word, Mommy!” they would exclaim delightedly. Then my friends would begin the complicated explanation of why it was okay for Daddy to use the “bad” word.
Perhaps this explains the popularity of the irreverent book, Go the F**k to Sleep, where the humor stems from the incongruity between the sweet, standard rhetoric of a children’s picture book (“the cats nestle close to their kittens/the lambs have laid down with the sheep/you’re cozy and warm in your bed, dear”) and the comical exasperation of the parent (“Please go the f**k to sleep!”). Swearing shocks (or delights) when it’s unexpected.
Recently a close friend who is going through a difficult time received an email from her kindergartener’s teacher, informing her that her son had exclaimed “Jesus Christ,” at the sight of a classmate’s bloody nose. Her son had not sworn at another student, but had innocently repeated a phrase he’d overheard on TV at night. The teacher claimed he wasn’t passing judgment on the language used at home, but wanted the child to be told that this was not acceptable language in the classroom.
But what struck me is the effort involved in writing this email. Of all the things to comment about – positive and negative – this child’s language seems, to me, inconsequential in light of what might have been discussed: his efforts at learning to read, how well he had adjusted to a new school, how well he seemed to be coping with the loss of his baby sister. Why would his inadvertent cursing, of all things, warrant a note sent home?
We seem to assume that keeping our children from swearing is a way to protect their innocence, to keep them from adult vices. The Supreme Court is reviewing the FCC rules on indecency, which state that “indecent” or “profane” language cannot be on broadcast on radio or television between 6am and 10pm, “during times of the day when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.” Yet every day the morning news reports on child murder and sexual abuse. Frankly, I’d rather my daughter heard someone saying “sh*t” than listen to a description of a child’s sexual assault.
Parenting magazines are unanimous in their assumption that children should be taught not to use “offensive,” “horrible” or “improper” language. But I haven’t heard any discussion about exactlywhy children using this language is so wrong?
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