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!