Friday, October 14, 2011

The F-Word: Is it Okay for Kids to Swear?

I like words. I like the way they can shift meanings, convey emotion, create a pun. I like how they sound, how they feel in the mouth, how they can be whispered or shouted. I like finding the right words. When I was a kid, I used to read the dictionary (I know, I know--I wasn't a popular kid). I needed to know the words. I was amazed at the things there were words for. Interlocutrice. Elocutionist. Sesquipedalian.

I appreciate the right word at the right place, and that's why I'm not opposed to dropping a "fuck" into my sentences now and then. Sometimes it's the right word. Sometimes it's the right context.

In a free speech class, I once wrote an impassioned essay condemning Supreme Court decisions on free speech and profanity for their short-sightedness. I was just re-reading that essay and found myself nodding along with my past self's opinion on the FCC v. Pacifica case (involving George Carlin's "Filthy Words" monologue) (and, to be clear, I am not biased. I often tell my past self that she is not very bright, and clearly didn't know what she was talking about):
the Court once again failed to fully consider the contextual ramifications of the monologue. Here, the focus was almost entirely on the audience. The Court was so concerned that an impressionable child might hear vulgar reference to excretion that it ignored the authorial intention and textual reality of the words in question. By ignoring Carlin’s attempt to draw social attention to the colloquial uses of these phrases and thus de-stigmatize them, the Court paid no attention to the authorial leg of the rhetorical triangle. By failing to recognize that the words in question have more than one meaning, the Court grossly ignored the context of the text. Finally, even the Court’s examination of audience—the crux of the argument—was insufficient. As Justice Brennan pointed out in his dissent, the Court was out of touch with the fact that there are audience members who may interpret Carlin’s monologue in a different way.
So, to recap: I like words, including some profanity, and I relish the opportunity to use language expressively. I have defended the use of profanity in the past, and I have re-visited those ideas and still agree with them.

What's the problem? I had a baby, a baby who is quickly approaching speech milestones.

Posts like "My Kid gets His Potty Mouth from Me" on BlogHer and "Let My Kids Swear?" on Parenting take a look at this issue, but don't leave me feeling much better about it.

The first one recounts a mom's decision to clean up her own language so as not to influence her children's. She also says, "I've had the talk (many times over) with the kids about how grown-ups have words that they can use, but kids can't. I've even admitted that I shouldn't always use those words." And I understand the sentiment; it's a popular one, for sure. 

But I just don't agree. I don't think that I "shouldn't" use these words. There are times, in fact, when I fully believe that I should use these words. They are the right ones to get across this particular idea. I don't use them at work, in public settings, or around other people's kids, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a place for them. And if there's a time and a place for me to use those words, how am I supposed to tell my kid that there will never be a time and place for her to use them?

The second article takes a more pragmatic approach: "As I am not an idiot, I do know that my children swear outside the moat. 'Shitty old dog!' I heard my 6-year-old yell the other day (and it turned out that she was denotatively correct). I pretended I hadn't heard." The children aren't "allowed" to use profanity, but the mother knows that they will, and do. For her, it's more about respect--for her, for the rules, for each other. She also says that she sees swearing like a gateway drug:
So, it lacks creativity and civility, but it also blunts the senses to other forms of violence, verbal and otherwise. It leads to the snicker when the guy on the screen gets blown away, or even when the fat lady falls down on the "funny video" show. It opens the door to seeing something serious as trivial, something painful as silly. On the most basic level, it opens the door to verbal bullying, to "moron" and "retard."
And, again, I understand the idea, but I just don't agree. Language is complex, and it is the complex creation of our complex human minds, minds capable of discerning different rhetorical situations and navigating the language within them. There are words, for instance, that I never, ever use (like the n-word and the above-mentioned r-word). It's not that I think they should be banned (banning words ascribes them a fixed meaning (which no word really has) and gives too much power to those who wish to abuse them), but I am aware of my own rhetorical positioning and I have never been in a place where using those words is appropriate to the context or the message I aim to send. But if we're intelligent enough to figure out how to use our language in all its complexity, how can we just lump together an miniscule group of words and decide that these words are somehow outside of the scope of that complexity? Aren't we smarter than that?

In the end, I think I agree with (as I so often do) blue milk, who had this to say about her own child saying "fuck":
Lauca, it is ok to say that word at home with Mummy and Daddy but don’t say it anywhere else because some people don’t like that word and if they hear that word they feel upset.
I would feel like a hypocrite to tell my daughter that she can't use words. I don't believe in banning words, and I do believe that my daughter is a person--full and complete, though growing and learning. I don't want to be the parent with a obnoxious, socially off-cast child who swears like a sailor, but I don't think I will be. I think that loving language means loving its complexities, and I hope to help my daughter learn those, too.

Photo credit: Ani-Bee


  1. Very interesting post!

    I honestly haven't given much thought to how I'll handle curse words around my kids. I have, however, worried about how I'll keep them from overusing "like," "you know," and "kinda"--some of the verbal crutches that drive me nuts in my students.

    One problem that I do envision with "fuck" and its variants is explaining the concrete definitions. I squirm when imagine telling them that when daddy says "I'm fucked," it doesn't just mean "I'm in a tough situation." I want to be open with my kids about sex and I want to talk with them from an early age about dealing with unwanted touching. How would I make the leap, then, from that rather serious discussion to explaining that "I'm fucked" or "It fucked me over" are hyperbolic ways of saying "this situation is comparable to sexual assault." I don't want to end up downplaying the seriousness of rape in my kids' minds by casually comparing it to, say, forgetting to call my parents one Sunday or not getting the correct change back from the snack machine.

    Whew, so many things to think about!!

  2. Hmm, interesting. I think that you establish that understanding in a series of conversations, conversations that get more complex over time and that adapt to the situations we find ourselves in.

    Also, I think that just as kids can figure out that "Spot" can refer to the "dog"-- who is also a "puppy dog" and a "pet"--and also refer to the "spot" of "dirt" on the floor and the "airplane" that we "spot" in the sky, they can also (with coaching and contextualization) understand the nuances of these "bad" words.

  3. Soon after I posted my comment, I saw this on Facebook: "Jon Stewart and The Best F**king News Team Ever return Monday with all new episodes!"

    I'm totally okay if my kids learn to use the f-word in that context. :)