Kids, Curse Words & Cultural Differences

(Readers: this post is PG-13: contains some vulgar language. You have been warned.)

My parents sent me to an all-girl private school in England. Not only did they want me to get a great education (which I did) but they were also hoping it would make me a lady. Well, that part failed.

Confession: I enjoy swearing. Not gratuitously, but I do love to use a well-timed, judiciously-selected swear word to add punch and color to my point of view and delivery. I realized pretty quickly upon my arrival here in the US that this was politically incorrect, especially in business meetings. Oops. But, hey, I still do it from time to time, just for shock and entertainment value.

Therefore it’s a bloody miracle that, so far, my kids haven’t uttered any curse words. (Well other than the time that my son asked at the dinner table whether “total f*cker” was a bad expression. And yes, my husband & I pissed ourselves laughing. Teachable moment, gone.) Fact: my husband and I very strenuously avoid swearing within ear shot of our kids and, other than that one mishap, it has paid off so far.

But my son has started becoming more aware that there are good words and bad words. I’ve explained to him that there are words that only grown-ups should use. I explain they are inappropriate and unnecessary parts of a kid’s vocabulary and, moreover, sound incredibly ugly coming out of a child’s mouth. A good friend of mine has a rule with her son. If he’s going to use a swear word, he has to understand what it means first. That’s fine if your kid is 12+ and has been through sex-ed; not so much for a six year-old though.

I vividly remember a scene from my childhood in which my older brother was complaining about his math teacher. “Mr Agnew is crap!” he proclaimed. In my innocence, I repeated this detail at the dinner table that evening when we were discussing how our school day was with our parents. Well, I got my mouth washed out with soap. That taught me quickly that “crap” was high on the list of expressions that would get me into deep shit.

These days however, I’ve noticed that, at least here in the US, crap is now an acceptable term, used with increasing frequency. I’m not sure how I feel about this, given that I am scarred from the mouth-being-washed-out with soap incident. I’ve not heard my kids use the word yet, but I’m sure that day is coming.

There are other American phrases which, to my ear, sound pretty close to being swear words but which are also socially acceptable. “Shoot” being one. Not only is it grammatically nonsensical (“Shoot, I forgot my homework”) but it’s so close to shit, why not say it? Or for the fainter-hearted, why not chose something different that’s not so close to a swear word or a blasphemy? My personal favorite is “rats!”

And then, there’s “this sucks.” What has sucking got to do with a situation? I’ve never understood the etymology nor the attraction of this socially-acceptable US expression. And while we are at it, people, what is up with the double negative “this doesn’t suck?” A crappy expression, in my mind.

Anyway, my point is, our languages are rich with verbal choices. Choose what’s most colorful, impactful, original and, only if required, shocking. And to my kids, best to err on the side of caution rather than risk getting your mouths washed out with soap. Cos you know I’ll do it.

And so, I leave you with this …

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  1. I didn’t realize how much I said crap until Jackson started saying it when he was like 2. OOPS!!

  2. The bus is a wonderful place to learn ALL the swear words… my 8-year-old came home one day and spelled every swear word–correctly (so proud) –because she couldn’t possibly say those bad words! She was just checking to make sure if she was right and they were, in fact, bad words so she could be sure to avoid saying them in the near future.

  3. Annie Moore

     /  March 16, 2013

    To avoid the “Do as I say, not as I do” contradiction that often surrounds the issue of swear words, my husband and I would say to my son, even when he was in elementary school:
    1) If you are going to use a swear word (to sound cool or whatever), make sure you know what it means; 2) learn in what situations it is “appropriate” to use them; and 3) if you find yourself in a position where you suspended rule 2, you must be ready to take all of the consequences, whatever they may be!! To this day, and he is a 10th grader now, other parents and his teachers are absolutely shocked when they hear him say a swear word. The most recent situation elicited a full out laugh because the teacher was pleasantly surprised to actually hear him say some benign swear word! While this approach worked beautifully for our son, it may not work for everyone’s children. Follow what you feel is right for you and your family, but be careful that you don’t set up the “Do as I say, not as I do” contradiction. Because that contradiction will come back to bite you in the bottom, not only regarding swear words, but many other touch points as well!

  1. Holy Crap! | Keeping the Glass Half Full

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