One of the bigger challenges I have lately as a parent is explaining swears to my kids. Not because I feel conflicted about profanity or because I’m so offended and shocked by what we hear hoodlums say these days, but because I choose not to impose arbitrary prohibitions on my children’s verbal language expression which means I need to know my shit and be willing to discuss it with them in a way they understand and can engage with.
So when I get “What does son of a bitch mean?”, “What’s a bastard?”, “Why is fuck a swear?” “Why did you laugh when I said ho?” from my kids, it challenges me.
Some of what my kids (ages 7 and 10) hear is from people on the train/bus/street, a bit from TV, but the rest is from us. We don’t really censor ourselves and the kids know when it’s appropriate to use what language. They know that if they swear at school, there will be consequences. They know that it’s not appropriate to sing potty language songs in the market within earshot of other shoppers. They’ve understood these differences from a very young age. They just never cared what the actual words meant until now so I have done a few lessons on the evolution of swearing and the purpose of language and the creation of words and stuff like that. Explaining words like “whore” is the most tricky because there are so many socio political complexities.
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I do agree with some about a lack of decency in public discourse (although I’m not convinced there’s a “decline” and I generally oppose sentimentalism and nostalgia when discussing such things) but I’m less concerned about profanity than I am about being informed, respectful and articulate. Generally speaking, I think intelligent design is laughable hogwash but in all honesty, I would rather talk to a respectful, informed creationist than an evolutionist who is just a talking head asshat of a human being. In our family, we emphasize much more strongly the context and intent of language; e.g., when David is being silly and I want to rib him I might call him a dork. We talk about how that is different than if you want to hurt someone’s feelings and call them “dork”. Sometimes, respecting the person to whom I’m speaking might mean I refrain from certain words or even using a certain type of communication. I knew a woman awhile back who didn’t have the ability to understand sarcasm at all and it was very frustrating for her when it was used in conversation. I use sarcasm all the time. So, while it was not easy, I chose to keep my words literal out of respect for her and my desire to engage in dialogue with her. I would rather see my girls make those kinds of decisions than get hung up on whether or not to say shit when they stub a toe.
What my children hear at home is an occasional use of profanity in certain situations that we personally have deemed acceptable. It’s not always in a catastrophe situation and it’s not only when something bad happens. So I’m ok with our kids swearing. Interestingly, they don’t. Shayel is 10, she has heard occasional swearing from us her whole life. She has NEVER ONCE used a swear word, even at home. (oh except for that one time I was being annoying and Shayel jokingly told me I was being a smart ass. She was totally right and I thought it was brilliant) When we’re on the train and some kid with his pants down to his knees is dropping the f’bomb every other word, we talk about what they think of that, how it makes him look, the image he’s projecting, etc. When 2 people at the beach are screaming profanity at each other in an argument, we process the experience together. And when I say we talk about it, I mean that we ask them what THEY think and we have an actual conversation. Kids are pretty amazing when you give them the space to be. My kids make profoundly insightful observations when I don’t try to grasp them with an iron fist, controlling everything they say and do. Frankly, I think my 7 and 10 year olds have a much more nuanced and realistic understanding of spoken language than many adults I know and it didn’t come about by shielding them or changing our own personal language habits or just prohibiting something outright.