March 27, 2008

Kids Swearing

So NPR did this completely underdeveloped story on dealing with your kids' swearing. It's friendly and all, but I don't think it gets us very far. I agree with the point one of their interviewees makes that I am less worried about my child swearing than I am about my child being mean. Okay, then. But does that mean I should stop swearing?

I am a little up in the air on this one, as Michelle and Rox and I were just talking about.  So I'm just putting it out there. I feel like this is one of many parenting issues that people respond to in a gut way, without really thinking through the underlying issues. And that's fine, because who has the time to really develop a full-fledged theory of your child's speech acts? Much easier to just stop swearing.

Except I sort of like swearing. It's a part of adult life, unlike going to shows or staying out late dancing or having one too many beers, that I did not necessarily have to give up when I became a parent. And not only is it a marker of my adulthood in general, my language is a marker of the particular mode of adulthood I have chosen: a little irreverent, a little outside of bourgeois norms, a little funny, a little bit free of a some ideas of tidy, euphemistic, womanhood. I'm not the kind of woman who drinks wine coolers and watches her tongue. I drink beer, and I swear. I am not a delicate flower.

I mention this because I think something we might talk about more often is how our children's swearing reflects upon us as parents, and mothers in particular. When our children swear, it's not so much that adults judge them, it's that they judge us. As a wise women I know once said: "when kids swear, people think their mother's don't love them." I think that's sort of sadly true, because mother's are the ones we still expect to teach our children moral propriety.

Swearing has this sort of metonymic significance: if you reject proper language, maybe you also reject other socially appropriate behaviors! Like, if you don't teach your child not to swear, you might also not teach your child to be clean, or not to litter, or to go to school on time, or not to be unkind, or not to be lazy, or to keep their promises or live in a principled way at all. And if you don't teach your child those things, well, you are clearly a bad mom.

Now, of course, one of the reasons why I find bourgeois norms irritating is that I would like to break the association between trivial things like swearing and important things like living a principled life. But here's the deal: bourgeois norms might be outdated and irritating. But they are still powerful.

So I think if we don't teach our children how to behave in polite and tidy bourgeois society, it's still a sign that we aren't giving our child access to the power of that world. And it's one thing for them to opt out on their own. It's another for us not to teach them how to behave there.

And, quite frankly, even if I do often swear or speak irreverently, there are times when I don't want that part of my personality on display.  I don't think swearing is very taboo, but my grandmother thinks it is--so I don't swear around her, because in her mind it would move form being "irreverent" to being "sinful," which is completely different.  And I can't expect my child to respect my boundaries if I haven't taught them that those boundaries are important.

I guess swearing is one of the places, if a trivial one where real life meets ideal life, and then you just have to decide if this is a battle you want to fight.

On a completely different tack, so I'll just say this real quick like, it occurs to me that I am very casual about swearing because most swear words involve references to sex and the body, and those are things that I think we should be more casual about.  I don't think, most of the time, that the body or its actions or excretions, should be taboo issues.  But that doesn't mean I don't have my own set of taboos.  I am not at all casual about language that I find racist or sexist or homophobic, for example, and I don't think Elliot should be, either.  

Which I guess leave us here: if you hear Elliot say "shit," feel free to shake your head in my general direction.  But if you hear him call someone a fag, call me immediately and I shall proceed to wash his mouth out with a series of rigorous essays by Judith Butler on hate crimes and speech act theory.  Like soap, but different.


w. wilson said...

I haven't thought this far ahead, mostly because my own kidlet doesn't say much at all yet. Still, I think there's something dangerous in assuming our kids want or need to be taught how to think like US (irreverent or reverent). Instead, I'd guess the best bet is to give them tools through which to judge the appropriateness of any situation. So, if our friend Elliot says shit around us, it'll be fine, but it won't be fine at school or around certain family members or maybe in the grocery store. So, my newly formed opinion is: teach context!

Beck said...

Heh. My husband has pointed out that the second my kids go to bed, my Trucker Mouth comes back - but until then, I talk like a nursery school teacher. Your friend's comment was quite profound, I think - there's something profoundly yucky about a kid swearing, and yet I KNOW that the boys in The Boy's class swear a lot and I also know that it's a rite of passage. SO long as he figures out that it's social innaproriate to swear around adults, we're doing okay.

sarah said...

totally right, both of you.

i guess i am thinking about this problem particularly from the perspective of the parent of a toddler. It is a lot easier to "teach" him words than to teach him context. Or rather, context i sort of have to teach him. Words he just learns.

which maybe means i just need to stop swearing during these difficult "sponge" years?

Jenny said...

First this: Fuck Yeah! And this: I agree with Whit about context, though I think it will be hard to teach until our little ones get older. Millie is almost old enough to get it, but I definitely hold onto my f-bombs for adults-only conversation (duh, right?).

When Millie gets frustrated with Laney she sometimes calls her a dammit thing. As in, "Oh Laney! You dammit thing!" I find this amusing, but I've still given her the grown-up words talk. At least she's not calling her a fucking thing.

Kati said...

I'm going to leave a comment that doesn't really add anything to this conversation, but it was one of the *craziest* things I ever overheard an eight-year-old say while I was living in Humbolt Park.

Setting: A bunch of little boys are on the sidewalk preparing to race to an undisclosed location.

One yells, as he starts charging down the block: Last one there can suck my dick!

I was like, when did "rotten egg" go out of style? Did it really progress to "suck my dick" in the last 20 years?

orange said...

nice post. good ponderable material. and i like your take on it, and like to hear someone admit that they *like* swearing. i like it too!!

Sheree said...

Great comments everyone. I'm just getting to the point where this matters. We keep saying "No swearing around the baby", but then we swear around the baby. I also come from a household where the first word my brother learned to conjugate was, in fact, "shit". However, there was a threat of soap, and in the end we all learned context.

For a while, I thought that if everyone would just use the forbidden words in a commonplace way, and they would become commonplace words. Then someone pointed out that they are powerful words, and that perhaps it's a good thing to have powerful words. I agree. I really like having words to use that convey emotions for me. This comes in handy when, say, the phone company has overcharged me again. So, now I give the words a little bit of respect, and they give me a little bit of power.
(They also give me a little bit of Torrets syndrome in city traffic.)

Amy E said...

My dad swears more than anyone else, tha anyone ever met. Seriously. Every other word that comes out of his mouth can be a swear word. True, he swears more with his increasing age, but he always swore a lot when I was growing up.

My parents tried to teach me context about swearing (i.e. don't swear at school, don't swear around Mormons), but sure enough, in 6th grade, I was having an argument about Darwin's Theory of Evolution with some Mormon kids and I started swearing and ended up with in-school suspension for 2 days. The principal made me go in her office and call and tell my dad. His response to the principal was, "Good for her, I'm glad she swore." My mom was not happy about my swearing, nor my dad's response.

My automatic response to everything in life, including kissing, drinking alcohol, swearing,
was to do the non-Mormon (non-normal in Utah) thing to do. This has backfired on me repeatedly, and now I think in most cases the Mormons had (have) it right - nevermind about the religion, but at least they have the morals and social mores right.

I remember thinking swearing was great and cool and perfect, UNTIL... Mr. Westergard (a non-Mormon), my 10th grade Honors English teacher, pointed out that he thought swearing was demonstrative of a weak vocabulary. This gave me great pause.

I still swear, and more often than I want to. Part of this is because I still hear my dad do it all the time, and because in my industry (crass Hollywood) you're pretty much kicked out if you *don't* swear every other word. But I'm actually really sick of swearing. For the most part, I have come to think of it as an (albeit effective) lazy form of expression.

Blah blah blah, my main point is, even as adults, we slip contexts sometimes - might swear in front of grandparents, bosses, etc. when we're not supposed to.

Toddlers? Ohmigosh. They can barely think of any words, let alone the CONTEXT of "swear" words. I say skip the swear words around the kids for as long as possible. They'll hear them at school before long.

Sometimes I wish my dad hadn't/didn't swear so much around me, as most visitors I introduce to my father to this day make derogatory comments about his swearing.

And try as I might to avoid it, I still swear much more than I myself want to.

I think there are much more clever ways to be funny, and to fit in, than swearing.

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