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Bad Words?

Bad Words?

By Mir Kamin

Despite my frequent jokes about how you can’t take me anywhere (or you can take me anywhere twice—the second time to apologize), the truth is that I’m fairly adept at behaving like a civilized human being when I must. I know which fork to use when at a fancy table. Although my everyday life tends towards jeans and t-shirts, I clean up and dress up when required. And please know that I would never dream of cursing at a stranger or even using “strong” words in polite situations.

That said, I’ll confess that… I swear. Not a lot, not indiscriminately, but yes: I use naughty words sometimes.

I’m well-educated and something of a vocabulary snob. I love fancy words. Heck, I make my living as a writer. Some say—and I’m not sure I’d disagree—that cursing is lazy. It’s easy and unimaginative. A true wordsmith can express what needs to be said in a much more creative way, right? Sure! That’s true. I’d also posit that sometimes there’s a feeling a person feels which can best be expressed with the judicious placement of an f-bomb. That’s true, too.

Not everyone gives in to salty language. Some think it’s crass and unnecessary, and I respect their opinion. What I’m telling you, though, is that I, personally, enjoy the occasional foray into carefully-monitored usage of some swear words. I find them a useful augmentation of language, particularly in times of distress.

When my children were little, I made sure not to say anything around them I didn’t want to hear parroted back to me. I was successful, too; we never had one of those “oh no, the toddler overheard me hit my thumb with a hammer and is wandering around the house saying, OH S***!” sorts of things. In keeping with my general philosophy about swearing—there is a time and a place, and within earshot of little ones is neither—it wasn’t a problem to make sure the words my children heard were never problematic.

As the kids grew, I had to think harder about the things that came out of my mouth. I don’t think I’d really considered the phrase “that sucks” to be all that coarse (despite a grad school professor asking me if I understood the derivation, and me arguing that it’s become part of the common lexicon)… until the first time I heard it coming out of my daughter’s mouth. She was about 7, and yeah, hearing her say it made me reconsider.

“You can’t say that,” I said.

“Why not?” she asked. “You say it. Is that a swear?”

“Not exactly,” I said. “It’s just… not super nice. Not exactly a swear, but not exactly not. You can’t say that until you’re 14. That’s the rule.”

Where did I get 14?

I’d love to tell you it was a carefully considered benchmark, but the truth is that it was a pulled-out-of-thin-air point in the future (maybe loosely based on high school entry age?) that seemed ages away. Somehow it stuck, too. Over time the kids were warned of other words they weren’t allowed to use until they were 14, such as “crap.”

You know what happened, right? My daughter turned 14, and a few of the previously forbidden words crept into her vocabulary. (It should go without saying that as a teenage girl, there are many, many things which she believes suck.) As a general rule, she’s not given to swearing. (Complaining, yes. Swearing, no.) But then my son turned 14, and suddenly I was listening to my children trying to one-up each other with dueling “that’s what she said”s and describing someone as “a complete douche” being countered with, “no, a complete douchecanoe,” and I felt conflicted.

On the one hand, I feel like we’re clear about the difference between “this is not the nicest possible language” and “these are words I really don’t want to hear you say at all.” By some people’s standards, my kids aren’t even swearing. (Though, let’s be clear: What they say in front of me and what they say with their friends differs. That’s fine with me.) Furthermore, these are words I sometimes use, and my kids are now just a few years away from supposed adulthood. I figure there’s something to be said for allowing them the space to try out some of these forbidden fruits while both removing part of the allure (what’s the fun if you can say it in front of your mom?) and reminding them that certain language is not to be used in polite settings or around younger kids (I guess our home doesn’t count).

On the other hand, I feel like I have bigger fish to fry when it comes to being the word police for my kids. If I’m being honest, I’d rather hear my kids swearing (in proper context, not in the middle of church or anything) than hear them call each other demeaning and/or hurtful names or tell each other to shut up. There was no admonishment for the whole “douche” conversation mentioned above other than “Ooookay, that’s enough.” In contrast, in our home, “shut up” is a sure way to earn yourself a swift consequence, because it’s just plain rude. And insulting someone is mean, even if you use “regular” words like “stupid” or “ugly” to do it.

Words matter. How you use them, when you use them—it all matters. To me, swearing is sort of the greasy potato chips of the language word. I don’t see the harm in an occasional indulgence, but they’d never work as a steady diet, and I certainly wouldn’t show up at a formal event toting a bag of crinkle-cuts, either. I want my teens to understand that the way they choose to express themselves will cause people to make all sorts of assumptions about them, but I don’t want that understanding to squash them into polite little boxes where they’re afraid to say anything unpleasant, ever, either.

It’s complicated. Really—I’m over 14, so I can say this—it kind of sucks.

Where do you stand on the language your kids are allowed to use? Have your rules changed for older kids?

About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • emily

    January 14, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    This is an interesting topic – I use swear words (probably more than I should) because I think they illustrate my feelings pretty colorfully. But I have a toddler and need to curb that a bit. Two things come to mind that I’ve read recently about swearing and kids 1. the reason for kids not to swear is not because the words are “wrong” or inherently bad but because, as you pointed out, people make assumptions about what kind of people use that language. Other parents might not let their kids play with yours if yours are the ones cursing. (more for toddlers but still). and then 2. In France they encourage kids to have their own, benign, swear words called caca boudin (translates literally to poop sausage). all little kids are tought about swearing using caca boudin as the template phrase they are allowed to use and are corrected on context of when and where such language is tolerated. I think that’s pretty brilliant. 

  • Pottymouth | Woulda Coulda Shoulda

    January 14, 2014 at 1:33 pm

    […] I’m over at Alpha Mom trying to unravel modeling appropriate language behavior for my kids, now that swearing isn’t exactly off-limits, but it’s not necessarily awesome to hear […]

  • Nelson's Mama

    January 14, 2014 at 1:53 pm

    I’m going to own it. My sixteen year old has been known to drop a judiciously placed f-bomb.

    I’m a parenting fail 😉

    • Sheryl

      January 14, 2014 at 3:17 pm

      Poop sausage. So much better than “freaking.”

  • Sheryl

    January 14, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    My husband swears like a sailor, and I try not to swear at all. Although, I must say that sometimes “pickle juice” just doesn’t cut it, and I’d LIKE to drop the f-bomb once in a while. My kids know that there’s nothing inherently *bad* about any word, it’s just whatever arbitrary construct is set up in a given culture, but I am part of that culture and I find it offensive.

     Fake swear words like freaking, I don’t have a problem with. Words that might be offensive in other lands are OK too, like bloody, though I prefer bloomin’ myself, because it has a positive meaning, but is satisfying to say when you drop a pot on your toe.

    My teens rarely swear, because I don’t like it. I don’t know what their language is like at school, but I suspect it’s about the same as it is at home. When they do swear, I tend to overlook it, because they are just words. Jerk, stupid and shut up are also on the no fly zone in our house. 

    I have to tell you this funny story. Yesterday a friend posted on Facebook that yesterday her dog got out when her twin sons were chatting with some neighbor kids at the door. A third teenage son, in pink bunny footed-pajamas, hearing that the dog got out, comes storming down the hall, yelling “Oh for fuck’s sake!”

  • Kathryn

    January 14, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    This is an interesting dilemma in our house – I have a husband in the navy, a 17 year old daughter, and a 6 year old son. I feel there’s nothing inherently wrong with swearing, as long as it’s not every second word, because that’s just lazy. And I’ll admit I got a bit lax about it as my daughter got older. The 6 year old makes this really problematic, though, because he is perfectly happy to repeat whatever the rest of us are throwing around. It does make some conversations a bit complicated.

  • RL Julia

    January 14, 2014 at 3:37 pm

    I am such a potty mouth myself, I don’t have much of a leg to stand on in regards to my children’s mouths- but I guess much like the French, we have tried to teach the kids that swearing and what words are being used is highly situational. My family (who are also relative potty mouths) are not going notice if you say fuck. My in-laws (who probably feel bad for saying “sugar” occasionally) are. Plan your expressions accordingly! Funny story. My kids heard my father-in-law say damn once and were completely taken aback if not downright stunned by this outburst. However they continue to not bat an eye when I call another driver (with the windows up, of course) a fucking douchebag loser. That’s just mommy driving.

    • IrishCream

      January 15, 2014 at 10:18 am

      That’s me, too. Especially when driving. My dad swore like a sailor when I was a kid, but my sister and I understood that we weren’t allowed to use that language until we were older (12+ with our friends, maybe late high school in front of adults in the family, never in front of teachers/employers). My kids have certainly heard me swear, and my preschooler has experimented with saying “Damn it.” She’s been told that there are some words only grownups can say, and that’s pretty much been the end of it. They don’t seem too scarred by my foul language, so I’m not worried about it.

  • Hi, I'm Natalie.

    January 14, 2014 at 4:02 pm

    The other day, my 4yo was really angry with me. So, after searching her vocabulary for the worst word to describe me, she screamed “Mom, you’re POOP!”. She was immediately extremely remorseful and apologetic – I was just proud that that was the worst word she knew. 😉

    I rarely curse, but I appreciate the occasional f-bomb. I expect that we’ll have to have more conversations about language and situational behaviour next year after she starts school – I honestly have no idea where the boundaries will have to lay.

  • Cheryl S.

    January 14, 2014 at 4:12 pm

    My daughter is 8. She will tell me that something “sucks” if she’s really upset. BUT, she knows that she doesn’t say that outside the house. She also knows that there are words that aren’t nice (I won’t call anything a “bad” word. Words are words, how you use them makes the difference.) Like calling someone stupid, ugly, fat, etc. She’s allowed to use those, though, just not in being mean to others.

    As for curse words, she certainly knows them, but doesn’t use them. When she gets older I think I’ll be of the “it’s OK occsaionally or for a really good reason”.

    Funny story. I swore like a sailor as a college student. Then one day I was standing in line and the 3 girls behind me (also college students) were using the F-word about every other word. It sounded so ugly to me that I cleaned up my language almost instantly.

  • My Kids Mom

    January 14, 2014 at 5:23 pm

    I’ve given this a lot of thought. My boys are 10 and almost 13, and I’m finally feeling free to swear around them! I’m a preschool teacher, so I’ve curbed all impulsive swearing for career purposes. But when I’m aware of my audience and the time is right for just that *right* word, then I’m starting to use them again.

    My kids were taught at a young age that there were “playground words” and “grandma words” and they were never to be confused. I do not care what words they use at school as long as no adult overhears them. If anyone is around them who might be offended, they’d better stick to “grandma words.” One night at dinner my husband and I gave definitions of all the swear words our kids could think of. They hardly knew any, so we ended up teaching them a few! I think hearing parents use them diffuses them somewhat, and having your parent define the word really wrecks it for future use.

    • Grammy

      January 14, 2014 at 6:03 pm

      I love your designations of “playground” vs. “grandma” words. That is really a good description.

      Yes, I’m a grandma and I swear, but I would have never sworn in front of my grandmother, and most of the women my age that I know aren’t pottymouths like me.

      About 40 years ago a friend of mine told her 5-year-old that those are “bathroom words” and that meant that you can say them only if you are in the bathroom. It was hilarious to watch the little guy jump up from the dinner table to run into the bathroom to shout a swearword he wanted to shock his grandparents with. And it wore off really fast because he realized it’s a big pain looking for a bathroom whenever you want to talk dirty. He grew up to be (as far as I know) a guy who never cusses.

  • Grammy

    January 14, 2014 at 5:55 pm

    I’ve always used swear words for flair and emphasis, as did my mother before me. So when my kids were little I told them “any words (except hurtful ones) are allowed in this house.” Nobody gets to ever use bigoted language — that’s not swearing, it’s just wrong. Other words, go ahead.

    Along with that freedom comes responsibility, so that means you can never swear at school, or in anyone else’s home. Not the grandparents, not your friends’ homes, none. I figured it would be ridiculous to expect them not to swear with their friends when all the kids were out of earshot of everyone’s parents, so I didn’t say anything about those times. If they weren’t smart enough to know how to hang out with their friends and swear without getting caught by anyone in authority then, it indicated they weren’t too bright and I had more to worry about than language.

    Interesting outcome, both my son (now 48) and my daughter (now 42) never did swear very much. They both know all the best swear words and use them occasionally, but they just never developed a habit, perhaps because there was nothing delicious about it. What fun is it to say things that are not going to irritate your parents?

  • Rasselas

    January 14, 2014 at 7:14 pm

    I grew up not swearing, mostly because my parents never did. My dad was a chemistry professor at the university, so he had these quirky and funny chemistry swearwords. About sulfur and other elements, or just other cute versions of normal swears. I never realized how modified and mild these were, until I started growing up.

    Also, as someone whose first language isn’t English, it is much easier to say swear words in English than in my first language! They seem more like out of a movie, and not nearly as “real”.

    For the longest while, I couldn’t bear to say a swear word. It was just something I felt blocked from doing, even though I don’t remember my parents putting any special emphasis on it. I just couldn’t, I felt horrible if I tried and it never turned out right. It would sound way awkward. It took me a while to actually teach myself to swear properly, with gusto.

    I must say, I appreciate the feeling of freedom in knowing you can say anything, when that is appropriate. For some situations, a swear word is just the most fitting. I wouldn’t want to be the kind of person whose every second word is a swear, but I prefer the feeling of freedom with language.

  • Ak

    January 14, 2014 at 10:45 pm

    As a high school teacher with super-human hearing, I love listening to them try to sort out the proper usage of swear words.
    If they say them at home, they say them x40 at school even if you’ve told them to not say those words in front of adults. It’s just so cute to watch them muddle through the balance of use vs overuse, sassy vs mean, or edgy vs offensive.

  • Myssie1963

    January 15, 2014 at 1:35 pm

    I was in the Navy, so I learned to swear like a, well, like a sailor.  However, when I was young I wasn’t allowed to swear at all.  In fact, I remember singing “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” when I was little and I would skip the “damn” in it, even when I was alone, because I wasn’t supposed to swear.

  • Jill W.

    January 15, 2014 at 5:17 pm

    This reminds me of one of my all time favorite panels of Calvin and Hobbes: It shows Calvin on the phone, and this is his side of teh conversation:
    “County library? Reference desk, please. Hello? Yes, I need a word definition. Well, that’s the problem. I don’t know how to spell it and I’m not allowed to say it. Could you just rattle off all the swear words you know and I’ll stop you when…Hello?”

  • Autumn

    January 17, 2014 at 12:14 am

    When I was a junior in high school, a group of German high school students came over to stay with us (we went over there a couple months later).  One of the guys was trying to give this presentation in English and was struggling, and finally said shit.  And every jaw in the room dropped.  

    His reply”  “You don’t say shit in American classroom?”

    Not so much, but the cultural exchange was impressive

  • Headless Mom

    January 18, 2014 at 3:23 pm

    I know that my kids are going to curse. They come by it honestly! 😉 That said, I have told them that adults don’t like to hear it from children. I don’t want to hear it from them, neither do their grandparents/teachers/my adult friends, etc. It is a ‘rule’ that seems to work for us.

  • Homeschool Unplugged

    January 23, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    I am kind of the black sheep of the homeschooling society in my area for this reason! lol “I am who I am”
    I actually don’t use the F-bomb but I am totally into say hell, sh*%, and A@@. I have taught my kids right from wrong and they don’t use words like sucks, crap, freakin, or stupid. My kids laugh at me and tell me I owe them a quarter. We actually even had an official “WTH” day this past Sunday. My husband let my kids have a Dr.Pepper with breakfast (they never get caffeine & for a damn good reason). My reaction was WHAT THE HELL! So, they ate whipped cream out of the container with a spoon for lunch, played video games for hours, and did not do their chores. They loved it. They laughed so hard when they asked for the silly requests and I would just say sure, what the hell…. 
    I think I will make it an annual event around here. I mean why why hell not? HA
    Love your posts… 

  • liz

    February 4, 2014 at 7:51 pm

    My 9-year-old kid knows he is allowed to curse, but only in front of me and his grandmother (my mother). Funny thing is, he doesn’t abuse the privilege. He will occasionally say sh** in the car, just because he can.
    He is NOT allowed to say someone is stupid. It’s fine for him to stub his toe and say, “oh sh**” but he may NOT call someone stupid. He does not even know about the word “retard” and its derivations, as far as I know.
    When he said something was gay, we had A Discussion about that. Turned out he heard someone say it, and didn’t even know what it meant. He is just as gay-friendly as I am, although not quite as educated on the verbiage. He definitely knows now.
    And I? I am the one who taught him to curse fluently. I manage not to do it while teaching preschool, but outside of school, I might as well be a sailor. 😉