by Travis Tagart
I wholeheartedly believe you should let your kids say "shit" and "fuck".
Douse the torches, hang up the pitch forks, and breathe for a second. I'll be reminding you throughout all of this to stop for a breath.
Any socially-conscious parent/teacher may find themselves in a predicament where we both want to teach children that (a) words matter and have the power to hurt people/contribute negatively to unstable sociological infrastructures, and (b) words are utterly meaningless and only have power that is assigned to them in their context. It's that volatile mixture of wanting children to be gentle, soft, and kind while also wanting them to be tough and outspoken. Of course, nobody wants to hear a child say words that are used to oppress people unless they are old enough to place them into scenarios where they are contextually appropriate. That I can respect and do believe is right. However, when it comes to those three- and four-letter conversational placeholder words, there's a little more room for exploration. Every parent of a parrot-like toddler should be excited when they repeat words. Any words. Remember that, because it gets slightly more socially complex as they hit 3, 4, and 5 and into the school-age realm.
You see, you don't want to teach children that those commonly-used words are inherently "bad" and that they're "bad" or "wrong" for ever saying them, because then, if they happen to overhear a respected adult talk to another respected adult and use one of those words, the thought occurs: "Is my uncle Travis a bad person?" That train of though is likely, but what's more likely is just complete and utter confusion at the inconsistency that it's acceptable for adults to say certain words that children cannot.
All poor behavior choices (that are not just developmentally appropriate behaviors that adults are selfishly unable or too weak to deal with) stem from some sort of expectational or environmental inconsistency.
Let's imagine a household wherein a mother and father speak to each other while frequently using conversational curse words. They use curse words with others over the phone. With houseguests. One day, their child says "I'm fuckin' tired" and is immediately reprimanded... WHAT? Why this reaction to a child using words he's exposed to--words we all hear and most of us use on a daily basis? Well, it has a bit to do with how we objectify children, and a bit to do with how we use children to assert our position in our classes... And, unfortunately (or fortunately?), I charge for my childrearing history workshop, so here's an expedited version, just for you:
Most of what we consider commonplace parenting hinges on the assumption that children are not officially people until they're no longer minors. They're property of their parents. They belong to their parents. They are physical manifestations of their parents' skill, ability, worth, social class, and intelligence. Of course, none of that is feasibly appropriate. It's downright stupid and dehumanizing. This view of the child is why we have children whose parents send them to preschool in expensive clothes and shoes and are mortified when their child is returned to them with a single stain, let alone an appropriate layer of mud and paint.
If we want to get as broad as possible, adults are discomforted by the sound of a cursing child because those words exert power and our society and its trajectory over the past seven hundred years (long before America existed, let alone had a "school system" to blame) have taught us that children are supposed to be obedient, powerless, submissive pets.
A little more technically, and from a less introspective point of view, we can presume based on this that adults are discomforted by the sound of a child cursing because it's so unheard of. It's so unheard of because we can't imagine a world where a parent would feel comfortable with people knowing their child knows or has ever heard a curse word. We can't imagine that world because we believe that if our children curse, it makes us look bad. And by golly, can you think of anything worse than other people judging you? Does not being judged truly make up for your choice to rob your child of developmentally appropriate experiences and a vital understanding of a large aspect of cultural linguistics in their society? If so, have you stopped to think about a pride problem?
Perhaps maybe if we weren't obsessed with using children to make ourselves look good, we'd reverse the horrors of academic pushdown. We'd bring back recess. We'd bring back play as the only vehicle for authentic learning. And, for the purposes of this reflection, we'd be engaging with children in a more developmentally appropriate manner, helping them explore words and meanings so that they are less likely to regurgitate arbitrarily assigned "unpleasant" words for the purpose of shock and awe and expand their vocabulary to where those words feel too simple to convey their thoughts most of the time. Let it be a part of their lexicon, and provide them with experiences that add more original and clever descriptors, adjectives, adverbs, etc. to it than what society may or may not deem "unpleasant".
Children are people, completely autonomously separate from their parents, and while their personalities may be influenced by the behaviors of the adults around them, there's no evidence to suggest that your choice to buy them blocks will lead to a career in architecture, no evidence that your choice to give them baby dolls will lead to a career in parenting or medicine, and no evidence that your choice to not censor your authentic linguistic patterns will turn them into hooligans that curse like sailors to any and everyone they meet. You want to know what REALLY makes kids frivolously throw out curse words at inappropriate times and in inappropriate places? Shielding them from those very words.
Dad stubs his toe walking up the stairs to put his child to bed. He shouts "Aw, shit--I mean, shoot!".
Child repeats "Shit!"
Dad says, "no, don't say that, that's a bad word!"
And just like that, boom. Case closed. Beyond the confusion and inconsistency,
- "No" just gave the word an exclusively dark and negative connotation,
- "Don't say that!" just gave that word a Forbidden Fruit Complex, and
- "That's a bad word!" just gave it a lot of power.
The more you say "no" to something, the more enticing it is. And just like all behavior management, if you're the "punish rather than discipline" type (or even worse, the "punishment is discipline" type), your punishments don't stop the words from being said, they just stop the words from being said... around you...
Is it ever appropriate to curse? I personally curse when I'm extremely passionate about something. I curse when I'm happy and joyful, or confused and vulnerable, and yes, when I'm sad or angry. Believing some words are "bad" makes it really only useful when you're experiencing "negative" emotions as a means of asserting dominance and power (because those words give you power, right?), which is arguably one of the least productive times to use them, especially if you're trying to resolve something with someone. So why not strip the words of their power and, instead, help children understand where and when it's appropriate to use those words? At home? With friends? However you decide to permit them should be consistent with your own pattern of using them, or the patterns they're most likely to see.
I know at least 4 children in my life who, when prompted with the question, "what are bedrooms for?" will respond something along the lines of, "sleeping, playing, bad words, and touching yourself". Perhaps there's a good rule of thumb for your family?
Part of what's important about navigating other people's expectations for how you are supposed to behave in a social situation is being able to "read the room", and overarching rules like "don't say that, it's a bad word" don't help us when we're adults and we have something we want to convey. It's hard to balance the idea that we shouldn't conform to what people want us to be with the idea that we do want to assimilate in order to build strong social structures. I get that. But if you don't want your kid to curse because it might offend people or scare people who would have otherwise been their friends... envision for your children to make friends who aren't so weak and fragile, perhaps.
I know I'm normally speaking to early childhood teachers, so let me make sure I say that none of this is to say it's appropriate for teachers to curse in the classroom. It's, for many reasons, not acceptable. Ultimately, exposure to these words, concepts, and ideas should be a choice made by parents. However, how you deal with children who curse in the classroom should be mindful of the fact that it's not a big fuckin' deal. I personally don't ever curse amongst the children in my program or at programs I visit because I never have felt the need to do so. It doesn't seem authentic because I try to use as expansive of a vocabulary as I possibly can amongst them, and as authentically/organically as possible.
In my life, I really only authentically curse in conversation amongst friends, some of whom do have children, and may overhear. So long as they are observing where we feel comfortable using them (the car, the living room, walking around the mall) and where we don't choose to (the dinner table, at school, in crowded areas) they will pick up on the social cues because, ultimately, they are capable of doing so.