Hi, woman-person here. I like swearing. It's fun. This has, throughout my life, been regarded often enough as something unladylike. Then I had a baby, and out with my placenta I released a lifetime's worth of bad habits, lest the child take after such an uncouth specimen. Or, rather, that's what I was supposed to do.
Now, if I keep cursing I'm not just an offending woman — I'm an offending enforcer of the cultural code. Mon dieu!
Look, there's lots of important stuff you have to teach a kid not to do: not to hit, not to bite, not to put things up their nose or talk about poopie too much. But if your kid runs around biting and poopie talking, people would be far more inclined to look the other way. If you have a 3-year-old who says motherfucker, you'll have some explaining to do.
Because cursing is still seen as a marker of class and refinement, and as such, an easy shorthand for people to distinguish children raised by parents who understand the value of presenting well, versus people raising scavenging animals.
In an essay over at Salon, a woman struggles with her love for profanity and the sinking recognition that now her 6-year-old says things like, "This fucking pencil won't work."
With the exception of an occasional “What the hell?” or “Dammit!” my swearing isn’t about them, or directed at them. But I do curse around them quite a bit, more than I should if their recent forays into profanity are any indication.
“Sonofabitch!” my 6-year-old daughter exclaimed last week when she spilled her juice cup.
I dropped my head in my hands as my husband asked, “What did you expect, sailor mouth? They’re not deaf. Keep it up and the baby’s first sentence will be ‘Holy fucking shit.’”
I sympathize. I was never rocking it at the cocksucker-levels she explains in her essay, but I used to swear more just after I had a kid. Once my kid showed a real grasp of language (she is 3 and has never uttered a swear word — at least, not yet), though, I have worked diligently to stop. (I've been somewhat successful).
Not because I actually think an affection for cursing is the worst thing you can pass on to a kid, but because I knew what would happen if I didn't: create a lot of extra work for myself. Later on, sure, it might be fine for her to curse when upset or frustrated, but a 3-year-old can't understand that it's OK to do that with your playground friends but not the director of the kindergarten. Situational ethics, friends!
To curb it, I just swear like a motherfucking nutjob everywhere else to anyone who will listen when she's not around to get it out of my system. I don't mind looking unbecoming all the rest of the time if I am taking one for the home team. In fact, I've had other parents ask me if I curse that much around my kid.
I do not.
But sometimes, sure, it slips out when I'm upset or frustrated or not paying attention. I’m not thrilled about it, but I don't beat myself up for it. Because frankly I think other stuff matters more.
Hey, we made bad words that feel good to say. If even adults can't refrain from saying them, how can we expect children to? They are nothing if not line-crossers.
This, by the way, is parenting: A series of negotiations of behaviors and values you pass on to shape a person that you had better be able to get behind. Because the stuff about kids being sponges is super true, only I think of them more as alien mimes: Imagine you have inherited an alien mime who has no idea about anything and it's your job to acclimate them to Earth — how things work, why they work how they work, why people do what they do, while also providing a god-like stability and predictability for them. They are watching everything you do and say and assuming it is How To Act.
You can't blot out all the bad stuff you and the world are most def putting out there, but, like a good nutritional plan, you can overwhelm your mime with mostly good things and behaviors, so much good, so much positive, so much upright, that it renders the bad stuff more inert or at least incidental on the spectrum. Did she get too much TV this weekend? Let's flood her with all art projects next week! A few curse words here and there? Focus on beefing up that expressive vocab in more culturally condoned ways! Eventually it will seem like how things are to be right and good most of the time.
But here's the rub about parenting: You're still you.
Control is an illusion. You are flawed and the real you will leak out like a heavy period with an inferior absorption range. And one lazy afternoon you will notice your kid is sitting on the couch picking at her nails exactly the way you do when you watch TV. You know, that thing you do because you used to smoke and had to compensate for empty hands? Now you have a 3-year-old who does it too. Ugh.
My husband will tell her to not pick at her nails, and I think, Hey, wish I could stop too!
Not sure why, but this alarms me more than the potential for saying shit. Shit's just a word; language is always changing. That I can handle. We're less and less offended by it every day; it's likely to become totally anesthetized by the time she's in middle school. But a neurotic 4-year-old with a mindless nervous habit? That won't grease the kindergarten admissions process.
So I take issue with the automatic head shaking at the cursing parent, often accused of laziness. Au contraire. Word choice is a complicated part of who we are, and there is nothing to suggest that someone who favors cursing can't use/doesn't know other words and use them well. I wish everyone would stop saying things are nice and pretty and fine — some of the weakest word sauce around — but no one except English teachers call that lazy.
I felt certain that I had this argument settled in my head: there are OK bad words and less OK bad words and I'm on the good side of the bad words battle. Then I heard something disturbing a few months ago: a 3-year-old (born of non-cursing parents) who called another adult fat. To her face! Fat!
Yes, kids say mean things, but young kids don't even know the word fat until it's taught to them. And hearing an innocent lamb of a child say this ignited the core of my being with flames of rage — surely the kid picked it up from somewhere; how could these parents have called someone fat in front of their child! And so on. It was so easy to be judge and jury.
But in actuality, I have no idea what was behind it or where it came from. Maybe the kid heard it on TV. Maybe her own mother call herself fat, and had no idea of the culture behind the word. Maybe it was someone outside of her family.
And now I wonder if, until a certain age, a bad word is a bad word is a bad word. They are appealing no matter what kind of bad they are, and kids can't distinguish the simply provocative expression from the shaming one — they only see the word and its impact and the reaction.
We should all try harder.
Yes, in a perfect world, none of us allows our imperfections to so much as cross the placenta and our invisible and not so invisible habits never take root in our spawn. Oh but they do, and understanding this is key, but especially, thinking you are immune or can control what they'll absorb and what they will ignore is high farce.
In fact, the way children reflect our own imperfections and shout them into the world via bullhorn may just be the best language lesson any of us ever gets.
Reprinted with permission from Jezebel.