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 no-swearing perspective here.
By Brianne DeRosa
My older son turned ten this summer. He asked for tickets to Tanglewood, a new viola, and not much else. “Just figure out what seems like me, Mom,” he said. He’s like that—willing to let us surprise him with a (hopefully) insightful trinket or two.
After careful deliberation, some adolescent giggling, and a little self-doubt, I decided to buy him a profane mug. Sure, it’s sanitized, to a degree—an adorable cartoon fox face punctuating the “Oh, for fox sake!” message—but the naughtiness is pretty clear. My son was delighted.
Am I encouraging bad behavior with my choice of birthday gifts? Perhaps. But I think it’s really just an extension of the inevitable. From the moment my boys—then still strapped into car seats—heard us utter “Oh, JESUS CHRIST!” in gridlocked traffic, then gleefully parroted the new phrase, our family has been navigating the To Curse or Not To Curse question ever since.
For many years, it’s been a subtle thing. The occasional little-boy outburst of “Dammit!” in a moment of frustration. A “What the hell?!” followed immediately by a peal of laughter and a quick “Heck! I meant heck!” And then last year, my then-third-grader started to rapidly expand into new and uneasy territory.
I figured I should stop him. So we had the Swearing Talk. And he responded by looking up all the choice words and phrases he wanted to say…in French. A language I don’t speak. Once you’ve heard your child darkly mutter “That’s a real motherfucker” in a foreign language on more than one occasion, you begin to understand that there’s a force beyond your control at work.
I had to admire his initiative. I also had to admit to myself that I was even less satisfied with his Francophile profanity than with the plain English version. One of them, at least, was purely communicative. The other was subterfuge. By making a big deal out of his word choice in a language I could understand, I had inadvertently driven my son’s communication with me underground.
For context: he was going through a frustrating, painful time. We, his parents, were doing everything we could to support him and, in the absence of a quick and easy resolution, to help him feel heard. And my newly profane son was grasping, I realized, for language that could adequately express what he felt was otherwise inexpressible.
“Well,” I reasoned to my husband one night, “he has always been great with vocabulary. What is this but adding new words to the repertoire?”
Suddenly it seemed not only inevitable, but reasonable, that my kid would swear. It wasn’t lack of ability to speak eloquently, or lack of imagination, or some laziness that was making him utter what had been previously unutterable. In fact, it was the opposite: the very real impulse, just as I—a richly word-endowed, creative adult—have experienced, to plainly and profanely spit out the emotional content of a moment. In a time that was the psychosocial equivalent of a badly stubbed toe, he needed—craved—something more punchy and powerful than “Ouch.”
So he swore. And swears, now.
There are parameters around it, which were surprisingly easy to come to once we’d recognized that after all, if you calm down regarding the illicit nature of the words themselves, we’re just talking about talking. Whether you’re using curse words or not, there are some inviolable rules of human communication that apply: 1) Know your audience—what is okay at home is not necessarily appropriate for church, parochial school, or your grandmother’s house; 2) Observe social graces—table manners, for instance, dictate many things, one of which is that you don’t invoke the f-word while asking your brother to pass the potatoes.
And most importantly: 3) Words are not weapons. For example, a swear is distinctly different from a slur, and whereas one will be tolerated, the other is never to be uttered. And no matter how tempting it may be to call one’s sibling a naughty word, name-calling is name-calling regardless of medium, and will be dealt with accordingly.
For our family, the crux of the issue was, is, and will continue to be this: we all must learn what to say, how to say it, when to say it, and to whom. And while I don’t want my sons to go out into the world cheerfully hurling f-bombs at passing neighbors, I equally don’t want them to feel that there is ever anything at all that they cannot say to me. Good graces, niceties and civilized conversation can all be taught. But having a safe space to freely express all the big, scary, frustrating and complicated things that they sometimes feel, using whatever words help them to say it, is goddamned essential.
Brianne K. DeRosa, MFA is a mother, writer, and consultant to non-profit organizations. Her days are spent juggling work and the absurd, joyful futility of managing an all-male household that includes her two young sons, husband, rescue dog, and more inappropriate language and smells than she cares to admit.