01 Mar

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I had a friend ask me recently about cursing.  Specifically, she asked about talking with very young children about the use of curse words.*  I suggested to her that I may not be a good person to offer advice on that topic, caring as little as I do about swearing.  I imagine, though, that my track record rather suggests the contrary; a casual observer might conclude that I care enormously about it, based on the evidence I provide on any given day.  My mother, as I’ve written before, exasperated with me many years ago (I don’t mean to suggest she’s not been exasperated with me since; she certainly has) for flinging one profane term or another into the conversation, said something to the effect of “Amber! Honestly!  I would think that anyone with as much education as you’ve got could come up with some other word to say!”  My response was that one of the things I learned with all that education is that there are some situations in which only certain words will do.  I can’t help if my life is full of those situations.  Profanity is situational; what can I say.  And rhetorical.  Communication scholar Lloyd Bitzer argued back in the 1960s that situations call for particular discourses, that the discourses are given significance in those situations, that the situations direct the responses to them…it’s all very scholarly, really, despite accusations of profanity as base.  I can hardly be faulted for having the keen insight to recognize a ”rhetorical situation,” when I see it on the street, or all around me as the case may be.  The fact that scholars have taken issue with some of Bitzer’s claims notwithstanding, dude backs me up so I’m sticking with him on this one.

Back to the issue of children swearing though, this is an issue with which I sort of struggled, in that it was a challenge reconciling my appreciation for foul language proficiently placed with the widely held expectation that children wouldn’t “swear.”  It could be argued that it is a widely held expectation that even adults wouldn’t use it much either, but whatever.  I do think it’s important to teach children the tools they need to perform well socially, and to guide them in ways that keep harsh judgments against them at bay when possible.  And an important corollary to that would be to teach them to disinvest from the judgments of other people.  But generally swearing is frowned upon as standing outside the boundaries of normal discourse (which, of course, is what gives it its power and what makes it more effective than other words at given times). And for this reason it makes sense to teach kids some lessons about its use.

Some parents do an across-the-board focus on “bad words,” perhaps especially for the very young, whose capacities for grasping the subtleties of language are underdeveloped, though most parents I know just use that approach no matter the children’s ages.  I’m not one for identifying words as inherently bad in and of themselves, or inherently good for that matter, either in my childrearing, in my teaching, or in my own everyday living.  My general approach has been to redirect attention away from the “badness” of words and talk about situation or context, and what ought be said in front of other people or with certain people and in what circumstances.   If one of my children would swear when they were little, I’d tell them that if they’re going to talk like that they need to go into their room and say whatever they need to say in there, because I don’t want us talking that way today, or right here, or in front of these people.   I tried to teach that some language is private and some is public, and that “cussing,” as we referred to it when I was growing up, is private language.  I followed this approach in other contexts too, when there was no cussing but they wanted to come at me for what they perceived to be some parental infraction.  You need to go in your room to talk in that tone…you can say whatever you want in your room when you are alone but when you are with other people (and most certainly when you are talking to ME!) the rules are different.”   Teaching them this private/public distinction, though I didn’t use those words, laid the groundwork for teaching about location and context and their roles in directing any language or behavior.  “Be wise” is a parenting mantra of mine and I used it in teaching choice of language as much as choices in general.  Because I placed no moratorium on cussing, the children had to be proficient at identifying contexts; I told them that if they didn’t use words wisely at school, for example, I wouldn’t be visiting the teacher to argue on their behalf.  So for me, the issue of cursing, or cussing, or profanity, or swearing, is more complicated than “bad words” suggests.  Now a parent’s ability to employ this strategy or that is contingent upon the children’s ages and temperaments, to be sure.  I  do think though that we use up a good bit of energy needlessly on trying to eliminate children’s swearing and we could use that energy for more useful things.  Like persuading them to stop putting perfectly clean clothes back in the laundry just to avoid having to fold or hang them.  For example.  Not that I’m bitter.

*Thanks CB for posing the question this week!


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11 responses to “Curses

  1. r4dic4lf3mm3

    March 1, 2012 at 11:06 am

    Everytime I find clean clothes that have made their way back to the dirty laundry I confiscate them and hold them for ransom. At this point in time I have a third of my 12 year daughter’s wardrobe hidden in an undisclosed location.

    • Dr. Mama

      March 1, 2012 at 1:03 pm

      I love this r4dic4lf3mm3!

  2. ChangedByChange

    March 1, 2012 at 11:11 am

    As a prolific user of profanity myself, and a mother of small children, I love this. I completely feel the same way that there is no inherent meaning in words, and I try to look as closely as possible at what is going on with my child at the time the swearword takes place. That being said, lately I’ve been correcting him when he uses foul words, but I’ve been struggling with that because ssshhhh…it doesn’t really bother me that much. I know, in fact, that it bothers me more that he may be heard by and offend others who do beleive that swearwords are “wrong” (social conditioning). Further, even though I am not offended by my children’s use of profanity, I struggle with what to do about it – both their behaviour and my reaction to it. Thank you for this post, you have given me food for thought.

    • Dr. Mama

      March 1, 2012 at 4:22 pm

      Thanks for reading, ChangedByChange, and thanks so much for posting! I agree that not caring much about it personally isn’t the end of the issue. One of my children doesn’t seem interested in swearing much, but the other one is very interested, lots of f-bombs in situations that hardly call for it. Probably got that from me, but I still worry about that one’s use of it beyond our home and car. one of the things at issue is that cursing/swearing/cussing influences the energy in the room, and when the words are really spat out it can shift our frames of mind so that we feel more agitated, or more angry, or more aggressive than we were feeling moments before. This is the part I think I struggle with the most– how permissiveness about swearing can grow bad energy…

  3. Christy

    March 1, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    I am so glad my question could become one for the masses. I have decided to approach the swearing issue with an attitude of outward non-chalance but to make sure that my little one knows the meaning of the words (to an extent of course), can come up with other more suitable (public use) word options, and understands that the reason we don’t use cuss words is because others could not/would not appreciate it. Hey, it’s worth a shot right?

    • Dr. Mama

      March 1, 2012 at 1:14 pm

      I think it totally is worth the shot and I think it will have some important influence that will extend beyond the issue of swearing. Thanks again for prompting me to think about this this week!

  4. Amykakes

    May 4, 2012 at 11:44 am

    As the aunt of three boys, ages 9, 7 and 3, I am faced with this occasionally. Their mother is extreme in punishment of “cussy” words using vinegar or fish sauce as a deterrent. I have a mouth like an 80 year old sailor, and when the boys are around me they will try to see what they can get away with. The older ones will spell out what they would say if they could cuss at my house. The little one will drop an f-bomb when he’s angry or frustrated, and reminds me a lot of my husband. But they know the rules and mostly we have no problems.

  5. lakeshaanderson

    May 24, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    Since reading this, I’ve been reflecting. I do not really care if my children curse/cuss (I was brought up to say cuss, so I’ll go with that.) Language is socially constructed. Someone identified and cultures determined that certain words would take on negative constructions. I could sit in my house and decide to make a rule that the word “bashavan” (yep, made that up) is a “bad” word. Really. Language is fluid, evolving. Especially for children. And children will test their boundaries, even more so when something is as taboo as cussing. I cuss. All the time. My daughter sometimes says, “mommy, use another word.” But, my son is testing it out. He thinks it is particularly funny to say “mommy is pissed off at you” when talking to his sister.

    I’ve talked to them about language and profanity. Not in a singular “let’s have one discussion and that be the end of it” talk, but we regularly talk about language when they tell me what they heard at school, or if a new word pops out of their mouth, I’ll find out where they heard it, if they know what it actually means and in what context it should be used, and with whom it can be used. So far, so good. They haven’t been in trouble at school. They’ve never said anything foul in front of another person.

    My question is…how did you deal with your decision to not care so much — around your mom? My struggle, as is the case with many of my parenting decisions, is that my mother thinks cussing is wrong, and she thinks they should be punished for it. She also thinks my daughter should be reprimanded for not wearing clothes to sleep in, but that’s another story. They will go see her in the summer, and she comes here on rare occasion. I don’t want to tell my kids to censor themselves around grandma. Teaching them her house is not a place to speak inappropriately is one thing, but not in my own house, or outside of hers. So far, this hasn’t been an issue, but it’s one we have had a small discussion about and that we disagree wholly on (add it to the list). I’m sure it will become an issue when my children are older – preteens/teens.

    Maybe it will never be a problem because they’ll never say anything “wrong” in front of her. I don’t know. I think respecting others is important. Period. But, when does respecting others mean you’re not respecting your own parenting values? Because…truly, of all the battles I need to fight as a mother, this isn’t going to be one my kids hear much about.

    • Dr. Mama

      May 24, 2012 at 3:22 pm

      I can only tell you what I do; I make no case for my approach in general. I think modifying profanity around family members who find it troubling is no different than my expectation that some of my family members will modify their racist commentary when I’m around. I do expect that and they do generally try to keep it in check. I think everyone benefits from the lesson that profanity is one of those very tricky things that really doesn’t get you much clout or slack in the end, so demanding one’s right to it rarely buys you very much. I have family members who like to fling bigotry in their own homes as much as I like to fling profanity in mine, but I wish they’d be mindful of its impact on me and just choose, because they love me, to shut it up when I’m around. My mother asks the same things of me and my children, though only by audible gasps when she hears foul language coming from one of us. I didn’t let my children speak roughly around my mother, no matter where we were. If they’d slip, I’d shoot them a look and that would generally be it, but the message and expectations were clear. I think profanity probably isn’t worth spending any more time defending than reprimanding. I also think that children knowing that cussing is really really not OK in front of certain people is a good lesson and they would learn it early in this case by practicing on their grandmother. Some people have a harder time with that lesson; I was having to chant to myself the other day as I was walking to a meeting with major administrators: “Don’t say f**ck, don’t say f**ck…Don’t say…”


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