My Kids Learned the F-word

It was only a matter of time, really. And I knew it would happen the way it did: They were making up silly rhymes. One of the girls said, “You smell like a duck!” The other said, “You smell like a buck!” and then, “You smell like a shmuck!” (I think I might have said that, actually …) Until eventually, well, you know how it ends.

I probably shouldn’t have said anything. In fact, I’m feeling sort of dumb about having done so at all. But when your dear, darling five-year-old daughter gleefully shouts that someone smells like a f*$k, it’s hard not to laugh / wince. (Lince?) And after my reaction, I felt the need to follow up. “I know you didn’t know this, Clio,” I said. “And you didn’t do anything wrong at all. But just so you know, that word is one of those words that’s for grownups to use, not kids.”


“Well,” I said, “it’s about grownup stuff. And it’s something grownups usually say when they’re really angry.” (Or excited? Drunk?) “It’s just not a word that’s OK for little kids to say. It tends to make people sort of angry and upset when they do.” (Including me. I am not like this dad who wrote for Babble about how he lets his 4-year-old swear at home. And I guess I’m a little old-fashioned in general when it comes to overuse of profanity. Not that this stops me from using the occasional, well-placed 4-letter word.)

Then she asked, “What does it mean?”

Now. I am not shy about explaining things to my daughters when they ask questions. When Elsa asked me how babies are made — (no, how they’re really made, Mommy; enough with the “daddies-have-a-seed-and-mommies-have-an-egg-glossing-over-the details-thing”)  — I told her. And when the girls ask thorny theological questions, like what became of the remains of Jesus, I tell them. Or at least talk about the possibilities with them.

But when it came to the F-word, it took me all of one eighth of a second to say, “I’ll explain when you’re older.”

If they’d been playing rhymes with “hit” and “spit,” I’d have been glad to provide an explanations when they landed on the taboo word. “It’s a not-very-nice word for poop.” End of discussion. But it would be a helluva lot harder to explain to a little kid that this horrible, terrible word — the big mother of all swear words!— is, at its most basic level, a not-very-nice word for … making babies.

And you know what the next question would be: “What’s not nice about making babies?”

And I can’t even begin to think about knowing how to answer that question in a way that a couple of five-year-olds would grasp. It’s a lot to try to tackle the many subtleties and use cases of the F-word.

Clio brought it up again a few days later: “What was that word we’re not suppose to say? Why won’t you tell us what it means?”

Which made me wish I hadn’t said anything at all. It was just so shocking when she (innocently) blurted it, I couldn’t help myself.  But eventually they would have heard it somewhere — from a kid at school or from one of the screaming matches our neighbors sometimes have. (Sadly, I’m not joking …) Or, yes, from me, because sometimes I can’t stop myself from dropping an F-bomb when I break something or hurt myself. (“Making babies! I broke another wine glass!”)

They would have asked what it meant, or might have tried it out themselves, and we could have discussed it then, with more context, (more context than being a no-no rhyme for “duck,” that is), as Heather Turgeon wisely advised in another recent essay here.

Ah, well. Parenting hindsight is 20/20. The good news is, I think chances are slim that they’ll actually remember the word from this one instance. So when next, it issues forth from their angelic mouths, we can talk about it — and how it’s used — in a more meaningful way. Maybe I’ll even tell them what it means.

What’s your approach when words a bit harsher than the usual “poop-head” and “butt face” make it into your household?


DOUBLE TIME, my memoir of parenting twins and battling depression (among other things) is available for pre-order! Order before May 8, and I’ll send you a bookmark and free signed bookplate. Click for details.

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Article Posted 4 years Ago
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