Do you let your children curse? Brianne De Rosa thinks it’s okay for her ten-year-old to use swear words; Lisa Sadikman feels it crosses a line. Read the pro-swearing perspective here.
By Lisa Sadikman
The dusty duffle bag lay open on the floor, dirt-stained clothes balled up in its depths. My 14-year-old daughter excitedly caught me up on her month away at camp as she unpacked. Yes, she’d made some amazing new friends, no, the food wasn’t any better than it was last year and it’s possible that she might have kissed a boy. Then, while digging through her bag she blurted out, “Shit! I can’t find the candle I made for you!”
“Hey!” I said, somewhat stunned. “What’s up with the language?” I’d never heard her swear before.
She looked up sheepishly. “Sorry Mom, but everyone curses at camp.”
I bristled primly. “Well, you aren’t at camp. You’re at home,” I said. “And we don’t curse at home.”
She looked at me skeptically, raising her eyebrows. I stared right back, my own brows raised. “Okay mom, I know,” she said. We went back to chatting and sorting though her mostly unsalvageable camp clothes. Seems she wasn’t going to challenge my well-known kids-don’t-curse rule—at least not this time.
Hearing my daughter swear so nonchalantly rattled me. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised: I drop the f-bomb here and there—usually when I stub a toe or bang my head—and I’ve been known to call the bad driver in front me an asshole while all three of my girls are in the car. I always apologize for swearing in front of them and remind them that just because I occasionally curse doesn’t mean it’s okay for them to do so. I believe swear words are for adult use only, not for children. Like driving, using swear words is a responsibility. Until my kids are old enough to learn the emotional and linguistic skills that go along with that responsibility, it’s a boundary I don’t want them to cross.
This policy gets a little tricky when you have a wide age range of kids in the house, especially since I believe cursing is a natural part of the transition from childhood to young adulthood. My 14-year-old has one foot firmly planted in young adulthood and my 11-year-old is on her way, but I also have a five-year-old. For that reason alone I curb my own swearing and admonish the older two if they let slip what I consider less offensive curses, like “damn” or “crap.” While I might overlook that kind of language from my older two, there’s no way it’s okay coming from my little one. More intense curse words—the ones that elicit a range of emotions from put-off (asshole) to deeply insulted (motherfucker)—are off limits for everyone.
Swear words by definition are offensive and I was brought up in a house where cursing, especially at or in front of my parents, was simply not tolerated. I’ve definitely carried on that tradition. That said, I know from experience that cursing is also a great way to release stress, emphasize a point, inject humor or show enthusiasm. Every word we speak—and think—has the power to create or shift our emotions, and those of the people around us, for good or bad. The taboo quality of curse words makes them even more powerful.
Context is everything when swearing and I’m not convinced that any child under the age of 10 has the capacity to handle the various intentions and emotions that go along with using swear words. Then there’s the way people feel when they curse: empowered, grown-up, rebellious or, on the other end of the spectrum, depressed, sad, furious. I’m especially wary of my kids adopting curse words to describe their mistakes or define themselves in negative ways. I never want my daughter to think of herself as a “fuck up” if she does poorly on test or misses a goal. To me, using profanity to describe an action or oneself has an abusive quality to it that seems irrevocably to elevate the level of damage. Gentler terms like “messing up” or “making a mistake” leave more room for forgiveness and correction.
Insisting that my kids refrain from cursing—at least in the house—might seem prudish or out of touch, especially since I suspect they’re doing it around their peers to some extent. This rule, however, is one way I maintain the boundary between child and adult. More and more our culture insists on blurring those lines, which makes the job of raising our kids, without rushing them, all the more challenging. Adult content and profane lyrics litter pop songs marketed to tweens and younger. My older daughters strain to grow up, caught in that middle place between girl and woman, dependent and independent.
While this yearning to be older is pretty typical, my girls aren’t at that stage. It’s my responsibility to make sure they’re ready to cross the boundary into adulthood when the time comes. Helping my kids understand the power and impact of adult language before they decide to adopt it as a regular matter of course is one of those boundaries.
I don’t pretend the f-word is a mystery to my daughters or expect they’ll never curse in front of me as they grow older. What I do expect, though, is that they consider how they’re using swear words and the feelings they evoke. Acquiring this kind of awareness takes time, experience and guidance. Whether I’m ready or not, my oldest is getting there and my middle child is right around the corner. Until their little sister comes home and announces that she loves unicorns because “they’re so fucking cute!” I’ll feel confident that our no-swearing house rule is doing its job.
Lisa Sadikman lives in Northern California with her husband and three girls. Her kids make her donate a dollar to the family fro-yo fund every time she drops the f-bomb. You can read more about her adventures parenting a teen, a tween and a kindergartner, managing marriage and living a grown-up life on her blog, Flingo.