My angel-faced son was not quite 2 years old when the director of his church preschool called to tell me my boy had dropped a wooden block on his foot, then yelled, “S**t!”
While an understandable use of profanity given the situation, his outburst clearly wasn’t appropriate to the setting.
There was no question the boy was imitating Mommy, so I took full responsibility and told the preschool director that I’d work on curbing my vulgar tendencies. Luckily, the preschool director had a sense of humor and thought the incident was (kind of) funny.
When kids are learning language, experts say it’s best to ignore their occasional use of cuss words. Shoot, as an adult I’ve inadvertently said “not nice” words at the wrong time or place. If a kid thinks a word might have power, and an adult reacts (even with punishment), that kid probably will want to use that word again. For example, my girl pronounced the letter “t” as “f” as a toddler. She quickly learned how to make all the adults around her laugh by pointing at trucks and yelling, well … you know what.
I’m not sure how long my attempt to be less profane around my kids lasted. There are times when I find a huge release in using cuss words – as an expression of pain, surprise or frustration. But I don’t use profanity to humiliate or hurt. And I’m trying to teach my kids the same.
I tell them that name-calling’s never OK. Venting your frustration or anger on others with cuss words (or violence) is bad juju. Using cuss words at church or school or around your grandparents can get you into trouble, and it’s best to stay out of trouble (regardless of whether or not your grandparents cuss themselves).
Here’s what else I tell my kids: there are words you can say at home or when you’re by yourself that you can’t say elsewhere. And no matter what a butthead some other kid is being, you can’t call him that, whether he’s listening or not. If it gives you a naughty thrill to toss out some cuss words around your friends in a private setting where you’re not being mean about someone, go for it. That’s a fairly safe way to come by a thrill.
I’m trying to teach them that some words, for cultural reasons, are worse than others. My girl was told that the word “piss” as in “don’t piss off the elves” was inappropriate written language for school, even though her mom used those exact words in a Mountain Xpress headline. Schools and alternative newsweeklies are clearly two different worlds. The word “suck,” as in “that test sucked,” has also been deemed inappropriate by the language police. I think it’s become so common as slang that it’s lost most of its original punch. In fact, I’d wager most kids who use “suck” have no idea what it once meant.
I’ve also tried to introduce more appropriate pain-reaction words, like “dang,” although that’s a dull word. My challenge to myself and my kids is to come up with words that express frustration but that don’t have negative connotations. I tell my kids to use the dictionary. Don’t be lazy with language. The joy of words is in their variety. If you can’t drop the f-bomb, can you say frick, frack (thank you, Battlestar Galactica) or feck instead? Can you borrow from other cultures and use words like bollocks or crikey? Being creative with cuss words can be fun. Really.
That said, when you drop a block on your foot at school, it might be tough to repress those profane words that express so well how much it hurts. But let’s keep trying so we stay out of trouble with grandparents and sweet preschool directors.
P.S. Yes, last week’s column about my opening a brewery was an April Fool’s Day joke. I’m still writing, not brewing, though still quaffing beers.
Anne Fitten “Edgy Mama” Glenn writes about a number of subjects, including parenting, at www.edgymama.com.