Our firstborn spoke early. By eighteen months, she was insinuating herself into conversations with “let’s talk about life” or “how are we all getting along?” One evening she was lying on the rug, uncharacteristically playing with a doll. It was the sort of doll where the eyes shut when you lay it down, but she had decided the doll should keep its eyes open at all times. She provided the doll with instructions on how to comply, tried to hold its eyes open herself, but the doll was just not cooperating. Finally, my exasperated little mite flung the unsuspecting doll at the wall and yelled, “Take that, you fucking jerk!”
I confess I laughed. I found the incongruity of a diapered, be-ribboned baby sounding off like a sailor to be very funny. The doll was none the worse for wear as it reclined serene, eyes shut. In the telling of this story, however, I discovered not everyone was equally charmed. Some predicted a delinquent and dissolute future for my child if I did not take swift and decisive action. This incident, along with the goings on of the three children that followed, has led me to reflect upon the matter of cursing.
It is said I also spoke early, but there was no cursing out of me. Even at age 12, I literally didn’t know shit. I was in the back yard with a friend who said, “I have a joke – call me a genie”. I did so. “Puff you’re a pile of shit”, she roared. “Shit, what’s shit?” queried I, and I wasn’t bluffing. I’d had my mouth washed out with soap for less than shit, but how I actually remained shitless until age 12 is beyond me.
The you-know-what hit the fan when I was a newly minted psychotherapist, working at a community mental health center. I was part of a deinstitutionalization project (if you could say it, you could work there). Our job was to help folks recently discharged from psychiatric hospitals to reintegrate into the community. With being accustomed to institutional protocols, the patients were generally careful with their language. The staff, however, smoked and cursed with relative abandon. I gradually learned to curse, and stuck with it to some extent when I left that job to have the aforementioned baby; hence her familiarity with the “f” word.
And while I’m still rather fond of cursing, our firstborn, now an engineer with babies of her own, is indifferent. This might lead one to posit parenting as an exercise in opposites, considering the differences in my daughter’s and my upbringing in this regard. However, in my experience as a parent and as a psychotherapist, this is not in fact the case. Rather, children are exquisitely attuned to hypocrisy, as in the relative ethics of saying shit versus shoving a bar of soap down a child’s throat.
Hypocrisy as it relates to words vs actions is most obvious on TV. Reasonably benign swear words are routinely bleeped out, while scenes of horrific violence and graphic and exploitive sexuality are ubiquitous. It’s hard to fathom how media executives can consider an “oh shit” to be more offensive than someone being shot in the face, or using sex to sell everything from toothpaste to tires. Even on so-called reality TV you can’t say shit, but the men can sure shit on the women. Media exemplifies the ultimate in the “do as I say, not as I do”, a hallmark of dysfunctional parenting.
At our house, we do not engage in indiscriminate profanity. Random swearing is one thing – at a math problem, a broken glass, a doll – while swearing at a person is quite another. Swearing at a person, or in the presence of a person who finds it offensive, is not permitted. Nor is rudeness or incivility, whether with swearing or without. With the exception of toddlers, children are not allowed to swear inside the house until they are old enough to remember not to swear inappropriately (like in front of the school nurse) outside of the house.
On the other hand, most curse words are considered less odious than words like bitch or kike or spook or faggot, words which release the stench of centuries of oppression and cruelty. Curse words may be used to let off steam, but not at the expense of vocabulary development. Ergo all things being equal, a four letter word may not be used where a new fourteen letter word will suffice.
Some of our children’s friends expressed astonishment at these guidelines. But as I see it, I’m into the steak, not the sizzle. And now with all four kids having safely made it into adulthood, avoiding the risky behaviors that can mark this transition, I’m feeling more comfortable with my choices. I can confidently assure anyone that cursing is not a slippery slope to destructive or unprincipled behavior. As an adolescent, our daughter summed it up quite nicely when she asked, “Why aren’t other kids allowed to say the “f” word when their parents turn their backs as they “f” their brains out?”
Occasional swearing has also been surprisingly helpful to me in my professional life, though I always wait for a client to swear first. Clients have told me it renders me more approachable.
A classic family story involves our second daughter’s first college business class. The assignment was to research a corporate entity and to prepare an oral presentation. She chose Deutsche Bank. When her turn came she announced, “Today I would like to offer my presentation on Douche Bank”. This time, even the professor thought this was very, very funny. It also got me thinking. Perhaps I should have taught my kids more swears.
Whatever else they do in life, I would like my children to try and make a difference in this world. But I know that if they do, a whole lot of people are going to shit on them. I figure they first need to understand the concept.