“What a damn assed piss bitch!”
This was the best string of swear words that my friend Heather, at age seventeen, could muster. Even when the situation warranted some serious swearing, this was as good as it got. Heather never injected four-letter words into conversation with any degree of logical coherence. She never lashed back at her many bullies with the whip of expletives they deserved. In the heat of those confrontations, she’d tell them to go bastard themselves. Heather’s attempted obscenities sounded so ridiculous that any impact, any trace of rebellion, was completely lost.
You see: Heather never really learned to curse. Her parents were good church-going people, and as a result, Heather picked up swear words the same way that we dread our kids picking up information about sex: in whispers on the playground, overheard on the street, and from the occasional contraband movie or song. The lewd-language impairment from which Heather suffers to this very day could have been prevented. So, as a parent, I’ve decided to handle the whole swearing thing a bit differently.
Now, before any knickers get knotted, let me clarify something: I’m not about to encourage my kids to go around dropping the F bomb, or any other explosive expletives just for shock value. I’m not going to offer up alternative words for bodily functions just so my kids will have an edge in schoolyard fights. And I’m not going to go around cursing my head off just to desensitize their little ears, to sear the appropriate inappropriates into their minds. But I do have a parenting strategy for swearing, and it does not involve bars of soap, naughty mats, My strategy does not involve bars of soap, naughty mats or insincere apologies.swear jars or insincere apologies. I want my kids to know how to swear effectively and appropriately, with skill and style.
My own upbringing shaped my conviction that good parenting and good swearing can co-exist. My mother is a grinning, golden-haired schoolteacher with a penchant for silly songs and floral dresses. But if, say, some sailors or gangsta rappers stopped her on the street and challenged her to a freestyle cursing battle, my mom could throw down. Hardcore. My mother curses to celebrate the joy of language, or occasionally to make a point. Most importantly, she sees swear words for what they really are: just words, marvellously effective and versatile when used properly. I don’t remember my mother ever censoring her language around me. Nor did any of my other relatives, most of whom you’d think learned to speak English by watching Tarantino movies; however, I was not a foul-mouthed child.
Okay, I did start a “cursing club” in fourth grade, but we never cursed in front of adults. Four other cherub-faced, well-behaved little girls and I would spend each recess huddled together on the edge of the schoolyard behind a big thorny rose bush. There, we expanded our vocabularies and honed the language skills that would later prove priceless. Poor Heather really should have been there. The point is: cursing is bright, vivid thread in the rich tapestry of human communication. A well-placed piece of profanity can be an empowering expression of creativity, and we all know that nothing says catharsis like a good expletive-laced rant. So why do we teach our kids that curse words are so wrong?
There are things far more offensive to my sensibilities than the ‘bad’ words that typically draw reactions of shock and disgust from people who are eager to be shocked and disgusted. I’d rather hear my kids utter a four-letter word when they stub a toe than hear them call another person “retard” or “moron.” Expressive interjections and euphemisms are one thing; using words – any words – to hurt another person is something entirely different. In my house, I say go ahead and say ‘Dammit!’ when you whack your head on the open cupboard door. But did I just hear you call someone “white trash”? Then it’s lecture time, baby. I don’t believe in bad words. I believe in words being used badly.
So, what is my swearing strategy? I’ll avoid the F-word and a few other high-impact expletives until my kids are mature enough to understand the phrase “Great Aunt Pam will have a cerebral hemorrhage if she hears you say that word, and I don’t want her blood on my hands.” But eventually, my children will hear these words from me, and I from them. The key is, there will be some ground rules in place:
1. No swearing in front of strangers, teachers, your friends’ parents, younger kids or grandparents, with the exception of my mother.
2. No using swear words, or any words, intended to make other people feel miserable.
Oh, and there will be a test. I plan to make sure my kids know the forms and appropriate usage of each “bad” word. Turning swearing in to an English lesson will strip away the allure of the forbidden. With luck, my children will develop an ear and an appreciation for swearing. And I’ll never have to worry that they’ll tell a bully to go bastard himself.