I Let My 4-year-Old Swear: Why Kids' Cursing Isn't Always a Bad Thing


My son is about to start pre-k next week. I’m just wondering what will happen if Noah walks into The Garden of the Holy Spirit and starts cursing.

You see, I’ve given Noah a tremendous amount of freedom of speech during my tenure as his stay-at-home dad. I firmly believe that part of the reason he can hold up his end of the conversation with kids who are twice his age and has the ability and confidence to introduce himself to new children, talk to adults, and use words like “diversify” is because I haven’t modified my own language around him. I was not a baby-talk kind of dad and I didn’t sugar or censor any other aspect of how I spoke to him. In return I have an articulate and precocious 4-year-old.

While the positive effects are undeniable, there are some negative aspects to my grand verbal program.

While Noah may be able to bust out words like “rapid” and “vexing,” he is also armed with an alarming array of four-letter words and salty language. He doesn’t curse constantly, but, like me, when he spills his bowl of cereal on the living-room floor or stubs his toe, he has a tendency to say, “Shit!” among other more colorful zingers. I have absolutely no problem with this; it is not a frequent occurrence nor is it viewed as a delicious forbidden treat by Noah, as it may be by other kids. Because to him the words are no different than any others, he doesn’t delight or marvel in using them; they are simply utilitarian language for when things go wrong.

In truth, I actually prefer the occasional “shit” and “damn” to all the infantilized alternatives. I will take a responsible, stubbed-toe curse word to a “poopie-butt” or “doodie” or “pee-pee” or whatever other cutesy scatological nonsense that makes other 4-year-old boys crack up.

But I seem to be alone in this view, even in my own household. The barrage of cutesy bathroom humor passes without notice at the park and during most play times, warranting only the occasional “calm down” or “leave at the park” from my wife and other parents.

However when Noah lost his footing on the jungle gym and shouted, “Oh shit!” as he began to fall, the other parents looked at me like I had just asked him if he wanted to do some bong rips at snack-time. But had he said, “Oh poopie” before putting his tooth through his lip on the climbing bars, I bet the looks would have been different.

After that incident, my wife, Karel, decided to tell him there are words he cannot say or that, as a family, we do not say, and she started a list.

On a practical level, I know where she’s coming from. I know people disapprove, and I don’t want him to have a harder time making new friends because he curses. I also understand that my wife doesn’t want to think about her giggling joyful little boy dropping a dish and muttering curse words under his breath. That’s something adults do. She wants to think of him as the blobby ray of innocent sunshine that has been lighting up our life for the past 4 years.

So being the bending-branch that I am, I gave her method a test run for about a month (even though I had strong reservations).

Immediately Noah began experimenting with saying “shit” and then looking for a reaction from me and my wife. Before the word had just been another word in his stockpile, the rejection of it made him realize it had some kind of power.

Then while reading a chapter of Harry Potter, one in which Ron mentions how much he hates Malfoy, Noah turned to me and said, “We don’t say hate daddy:”

His mother, my amazing wife, in an attempt to maintain the sweetness and innocence of her little blobby ray, had told him that “We don’t say hate.”

Hate was where I drew the line. How the hell am I supposed to teach him about the Mets and the Giants if “we don’t say hate”?

How are we supposed to read any book on the planet that doesn’t involve the words “pat them gently” if we’re not using words like hate?

It’s the trouble with censorship: not only does it give words a greater power than they already posses, but it snowballs out of control and suddenly the “we don’t say list” has grown to include: hate, suck, smelly, and mutant. How am I supposed to describe Tom Coughlin?

In my eyes, my son is not a blobby ray anymore, he’s not even a toddler; he’s a boy (admittedly, still for a few precious more moments a little boy) and he’s going to hate (hopefully not much more than New York sports franchises), he’s going to curse, he’s going to get into fights, he’s going to say things that piss people off, and he’s going to find himself in situations where he’s put himself on the outside. But that’s all just part of growing up.

So while my wife continues her futile list of words we don’t say, I have reverted to the my full 1st-Amendment policies – and we’re back to him no longer thinking “shit” is anything special. Karel is feigning ignorance about my reversion (although she is silently reaping the rewards). I’m sure the first time Noah skins his knee at the Garden of the Holy Spirit and Karel finds herself on the wrong end of a grumpy nun I will hear about it: a lot. But that’s fine; I’ll take it for the team because this is one of the rare moments when I know I’m right.

And, yes, while I’m sure that having two different sets of standards is confusing for a 4-year-old, isn’t the way we communicate and learn each other’s boundaries totally confusing anyway? When it comes to language in our house, we may be sending mixed messages, but that in itself may be the best preparation for what lies ahead of him in the real world.

I figure as long as he says more about love than he does hate, as long as the curse words are directed at toes and cereal bowls and the Mets instead of at real people, as long as he tries to be thoughtful and considerate more often than he is selfish, as long as he says “please” and “thank you” more often than he says “mine,” well then we probably shouldn’t get too stressed. And so far, that’s the way he is – a kind, considerate kid. Maybe that means I’ve done a damn fine job.