I was raised, as most of us are, with the notion that there are “good words” and “bad words.” I was encouraged to use the good words and discouraged, under threat of spanking from my Mormon mother and grandmother, from using the bad ones. This contraband list included, but wasn’t limited to, the usual suspects I believe the comedian George Carlin once nicknamed the “7 Dirty Words.”
As it turns out, in my adult life, these are the words I enjoy the most. These words enrich my life, make me laugh, assist me in making others laugh, and generally help me express myself.
There is a mistaken notion that anyone who utilizes one or more of the seven dirty words suffers from a lack of intelligence. But in Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, medieval literature expert Melissa Mohr explains that this isn’t so — the average person actually swears a lot. We use expletives as frequently as we use person plural pronouns (words like “we,” “our,” and “ourselves”) … which might be why some kids learn to curse before they know their ABCs.
Mohr’s work also incorporates research by Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, who charted a rise in the use of swear words by children. By the age of two, Mohr says, most children know at least one swear word, and really kick things up a notch around three or four.
Mohr also points out something I’ve long known, and maybe you have too if you’re a fellow enjoyer of expletives: swearing helps alleviate pain. Mohr notes, “if you put your hand in a bucket of cold water, you can keep it in there longer if you say sh!t rather than shoot.”
Similarly, when I step on a LEGO while rushing to get my 1-year-old a bottle at 3 AM, I know the only way to feel better is a hearty F-bomb repeatedly shout-whispered into the darkness of night. Spoken morphine. No other word will suffice. Go ahead, try it next time you smash your toe on the leg of that stupid effing coffee table. You’ll see. Swear words are cathartic. They help us deal with pain or intense emotion (as was evidenced by the unusually high number of F-bombs I dropped while giving birth to my youngest son in a pool of water in my living room).
It bugs me that the very existence of swear words remains unquestioned; that one collection of random sounds is socially approved, but another is bad. For example, “feces” and “poop” are A-okay, but “shit” is a bad word. Says who? Feces is far more offensive to my not-so-genteel sensibilities. So who’s making the swear-word rules? Because I’d like to get “mucus plug” added to that list immediately.
Threatening my children or disciplining them when I hear them use swear words is not a part of my parenting bag. I explain to them that many people consider this certain set of words bad and they probably shouldn’t use them at school or around friends. And since it’s no fun to swear if not with friends, that’s usually the end of that.
There are, of course, words I don’t like my children to say. But it’s not just as simple as these words are “good words” and this set is totally off limits. Bad words in my home include “hate,” “shut up,” “fat,” “ugly,” “stupid,” and any word that makes someone feel less than for their sexuality, race, religion, gender, etc.
But the usual suspects? Eh. My kids know they’re bad and that they shouldn’t use them, but they hear me say them all the time. And I don’t curse willy-nilly, mind you. I try to curb my enthusiasm for expletives, but it’s not really something I’m all that worked up about.
In fact, I like that they hear me curse from time to time. It takes away the power of expletives. They’re just words and not “bad words” in my mind, unless I use them to hurt someone. Under that definition, any word can become bad if you use it as a weapon with the intention of hurting another. So what’s the point of defining a group of words as “bad” to my children when the rules are so arbitrary and confusing?
I don’t want to raise children who shudder at the use of the F-word but have no problem using words like “hate” or “ugly” to describe someone else or themselves. I want my children to cringe when hateful words are used and directed at other people.
So, in picking my battles as a parent, I’m opting to not make a big deal about the “bad words” they’re probably going to use anyway. I’m attempting to instill a deep dislike for those other words not necessarily deemed “bad” by large portions of the population. It’s what feels good and right to me as the person who loves them most in this world.