Caution: this post contains implied swears.
My wife has a bit of a reputation. At work she’s known for her colorful language, especially in meetings when she gets to share it copiously with co-workers. There have been times when she’s let one slip in front of the kids but it hasn’t been too bad. Although in unguarded moments with adults she can get into that comical cycle where she drops a swear and then swears because she accidentally swore and they just keep coming.
My swearing, particularly around the kids, has a tendency to resemble the sounds that the father from A Christmas Story makes when he’s wrestling with the furnace. All in all I think I’ve been pretty good not swearing in front of them.
But what does it mean to swear? I have to assume that some families follow a policy that they should just go ahead and swear because their kids will hear it eventually – or they just don’t care. If they’re doing it on purpose I have to hope that they are following through with some kind of family meeting where they talk about the meaning of the language and it’s social impact.
Aside from the usual adult bad words there were a number of other words that were taboo in our family when our kids were younger. We wanted to convey to them that words have power and some of them need to be treated carefully.
We wanted to find other ways to express these ideas because throwing them around too casually can rob them of their weight. We felt it was important that words like this keep their weight; that our kids think about what they mean before they use them.
Do you really hate that flavor of ice cream, or do you just not like it?
Is that person stupid, or do they just have a different idea?
How we approach language directly impacts how we interact with other people and a cavalier attitude about throwing around a word like hate might make you cavalier about actually hating. As they say, haters gonna hate.
So how the f_ _ _ did my line of reasoning get all the way over here? Well, swear words have a certain power to them as well. Many kids, when confronted by a swear have a strong reaction, in large part because the words are generally taboo. But at the same time, that taboo gives them an illicit appeal. Thus, the booming schoolyard trade in these terms.
We know that our kids have been exposed to these words. I’ve been standing right there when certain of their classmates drop F bombs. In order to deal with it we occasionally have a family meeting where we talk openly about them. We set the expectation that we know they know some bad words. They get a free pass to say everything they’ve heard and we discus what it means, how the words are being used, and what the impact is – especially if the words are being directed at someone.
It’s a good way to build trust with the kids because we’re sharing something that’s usually hidden. We get a real sense for the kinds of things they’re being exposed to. And, ultimately, it’s funny to hear our little daughter say shit.
John Kubalak is a writer, teacher, volunteer coordinator, raconteur, and scalawag. He does not publish science fiction under the pseudonym Jonathan Black but he does publish a monograph on fatherhood, The Eclectic Dad. He has a son, a daughter, a beautiful wife (and a little dog too!) who are adorable, maddening, zany, and brilliant all at the same time.