There we were—yes, at Target. I was smiling, feeling successful at exiting the house for the first time alone with my newborn and three-year-old when I stubbed my toe so badly I saw fireworks. I gasped and grimaced, hollering, “OH, OH, OH!” when the unthinkable happened.
My three-year-old followed my “OH!” with a big ol’ “TRUCK.” Except that’s the G-rated version.
I raced/hobbled away from the home goods section and hid in the toiletries aisle while I regained my composure. Where had she gotten that from, and what is our game plan when it comes to swearing?
While some friends came from homes where swearing was banned, I can still hear my dad’s Boston accent riddled with profanity as he watched the Red Sox, the news, or the road in front of him. My mother never had a swear jar because then we wouldn’t have had enough money to eat. As children, we were raised to understand that you couldn’t repeat those words because they were for adults only.
I remember when I first slipped “bad” words into a phrase on the (middle) school bus with friends. We giggled and silently acknowledged that those words were naughty, but they added such emphasis to my storytelling that I couldn’t help myself. At that age, profanities were the most benign way to look and feel cool. During those years, I was told that swearing was “unladylike.” This perhaps served as a catalyst in my swearing like a sailor by college.
My track record for turning these words “off” around children and older adults (minus my family) is decent, and I continue to enjoy the release of expletives while making grand hand motions. Really, you should see me talk. The passing of an adult word through my mouth while watching football, describing a terrible day, or facing drivers at rush hour has become a release similar to pouring wine on a Friday night.
I still make an effort not to swear around my children and certainly never around yours. I don’t meet someone new and dive into F-bombs. But, when I’m on the phone with fellow bad word-flinging friends, my kids may be exposed. As much as I try to model behavior for my children, in our home, there are still things adults may do that children may not. When it comes to profanities, we are raising our children similarly to my upbringing: kids shouldn’t repeat “adult” words and they may not use unkind words or derogatory terms.
I may turn three different shades of red again if any of my children use a foul, four-letter word, but somehow the thought of them calling a peer “stupid” makes me cringe. I want to raise my children with empathy toward others different from themselves. We’ve all heard that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Except they do. And they aren’t the ones that get bleeped out on network television. I can’t shake the feeling that there is a bigger, better lesson for my children about the words they use and the power we give these words.
While the “adult” four-letter words are off limits for our children, here are a few more words we avoid:
- “Stupid.” I’ve observed that this word hurts our little ones especially as they navigate their social environments. When I asked my four-year-old what it means, she said, “It’s all about when you don’t know what to do.” It’s a term to describe being less than.
- “Fat.” Our policy is that we don’t talk about people’s bodies. This word may be used to shame someone based on their physical appearance. There’s also a group of women advocating that this is actually not a bad word, but while we are discovering the various other ways people use the term “fat,” we will continue to discuss how the same word can be used in different (sometimes harmful) ways.
- “Shut up.” Besides being rude, this negates any communicative efforts made by a partner or child. We may not always feel validated, but we can attempt to listen to each other.
- “Hate.” We can use more descriptive language to explain the reasons we dislike something. Tell me it’s “salty,” “plain,” “dry,” or “under-cooked.” You can strongly dislike the meal I’ve made, but “hate” is a strong word we don’t use.
There are other words on this list I cannot bring myself to type. Hate-filled and vial, they may be racist, homophobic, or just plain archaic. Some words are clearly censored, while there are movements to eliminate others. There’s a campaign to “spread the word to end the word,” which is especially dear to my heart as a parent of a child with a disability.
As with most things motherhood, I may be winging it with our profanity policies. There may come a time when I break out a swear jar, but until then, we’ve found our middle finger—er, I mean middle ground.