“I hate that.”
My husband and I were struck by the heftiness of the word our seven-year-old son had uttered. He was just learning to talk, and though it wasn’t necessarily one of those words, we immediately corrected it: “No, we don’t hate that, but maybe we don’t like it, or it’s yucky …” “Hate” seemed too strong a word to come out of such a sweet face.
Our next no-no word: stupid. To us, “stupid” is what you say when you’re not smart or clever enough to come up with another adjective. Plus, it just rubbed us the wrong way, so our son wasn’t allowed to use that word, either.
Meanwhile, when we would get together with our friends, our son was liable to overhear a string of colourful, four-letter expletives like the F-word, whose myriad uses are as impressive as they are diverse.
I think our generation uses swear words much more freely and openly than our parents’ generation — if I had heard my parents use the F-word, it would’ve terrified me! Kids hear (and are more curious) about curse words from a much younger age. So it was only a matter of time that our son wondered what comes after “hate” and “stupid.”
“Can I say the F-word? If it’s just us?”
That’s how our “swear sessions” began. My husband and I figured: If he wants to say a bad word here or there, just for kicks, and he’s doing it with just us, what’s the harm? Rather than reprimand our son, we would explain swear words and their contexts in terms he’d understand. We told him some words aren’t okay in the majority of social situations, but yes, sometimes grown-ups use strong language among friends or in private.
Honestly, it was kinda funny to hear our kid say what his parents were thinking in our heads, uncensored — or in his head, for that matter. In traffic: “Can I say a bad word? That guy is a f***ing idiot!” After stubbing his toe: “Can I say a bad word? S*** that hurt!” (You read that right, the kid even asks. Politely, might I add.)
Look: kids like to swear. It’s no secret they get a kick out of pushing boundaries and testing their parents. In fact, boundary testing is a very natural, very real developmental stage around the age of five. Kids test limits to see how caregivers react as they learn and practice their own independence. This is also around the time they learn about rules and consequences.
“I would rather my son swear with us in the privacy of our own home then start experimenting with vulgar language amongst friends.”
And are there swear words that are off-limits for us? Absolutely! This is not a free-for-all. It’s a parent’s responsibility to set limits, and important to a child’s development. Our swear sessions are no different: we explain the roots of certain expletives, which is how we decide which words are acceptable and which ones aren’t.
One time he heard the “B” word in a movie, and repeated it during a swear sesh. This warranted a quick chat of where this word comes from: it was used to describe a female dog, and then one day someone turned it into a disgusting insult for a woman. We never, ever use that word.
Another time, he yelled out the High and Mighty’s name: “J.C.!” and that, too, was nipped in the bud. Religiously charged swearing was out. He doesn’t yet know the colourful words that can be used to describe the male and female anatomy (thank goodness), and those, too, will not be thrown around this house — ever — for reasons we will clearly explain to him.
But the four-letter words? The “bad” ones like F-bomb and the “sh” word — those are more or less just words that somebody attached a negative connotation to.
Like many social behaviours, swearing has a certain etiquette, a time and a place. When my little family of three is driving around and we get cut off by some crazy driver, I have no problem letting out a collective family “WTF” and having a chuckle. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. If my kid were mouthing off a bunch of curse words to his hockey coach or in front of his grandparents, it would be another story.
In the end, I would rather my son swear with us in the privacy of our own home then start experimenting with vulgar language amongst friends in the schoolyard. By sedating his urge to rebel and say bad words, he’ll be over the excitement of cursing once the other kids catch on. We also hope setting these boundaries early on will help him decide how to handle social situations later in life.
And so far, so good: my son has yet to slip up and say a curse word when or where he shouldn’t. He understands that words have weight to them. He seems so much more conscious of the things he says, whether it’s a swear or any ordinary word, and has a greater understanding of how his behaviour affects others.
Will he let loose an ill-timed F-bomb one day, our rules be damned? Oh, I’m sure he will, but that’s what’s great about this parenthood thing: we can make up rules that suit our family as we go. This rule works for us, for now. And to those who don’t agree, well, we have a few choice words for you (but we’ll save those for the car).
This article first appeared on HuffPost Canada Personal