This morning began with a hearty swear word from Mom.
Not exactly what I had planned as a kickoff to the week, but let me explain.
First of all, it was raining, dark and chilly and miserable outside. Then my younger son got up extra early to ‘help’ me with my yoga. I stepped in cat barf on the stairs. I dumped my coffee all over myself and the counter and the floor. I stepped in cat barf again going back up to change my soaked shirt. My older son had a banana for breakfast, the sight of which made my younger son vomit all over the couch and himself and the floor. And I stepped in the aforementioned cat barf yet a third time on the way upstairs to get him a clean shirt. And finally, as we headed out the door for school, my umbrella was MIA.
“GOD. DAMN. IT.” I said, dropping the keys into a puddle.
My kids hardly noticed.
Context is key when it comes to language.
I try not to swear in front of the kids even though I really, really like swear words. But sometimes it just happens. I’m not religious or prude, I just don’t think kids should use those words until they know more about language and context. Words have power and these can be powerful and dramatic words and I don’t think they are ready yet.
But some moms I know have a different approach.
My friend Carrie always says that she “uses all the words,” and tells her kids that there is a time and place for all words, and if they get in trouble for using one of these words at the wrong time or place, that’s on them. She tells a story about her son, Fred, who pouted his way up the stairs after a typical bedtime negotiation with a 5 year old.
“F***ing parents!” he said, punctuating with a stomp.
“What did you say?” Carrie called.
“Uh, I said, ‘F***ing pants!’” he replied. Because, I noted to her as she laughingly relayed the tale, the NOUN was clearly the problem in that sentence.
“Yeah, well, you know those pants,” she shrugged and smiled, shaking her head.
My sister isn’t a big swearer but she does on occasion, in exasperation, say “Oh, Jesus.”
Her son has picked up on this phrase as only a 3 ½ year old can. “Oh Cheez-Its!” he exclaimed from his car seat one day. “Look at that big truck!”
“I kind of like that one,” she admitted to me, laughing. “I might start using it myself!”
Research has shown that in some cases, swearing increases pain tolerance and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing. And that swearing is actually linked to verbal fluency – and intelligence. So am I doing my kids a disservice in trying to hold back my obviously gifted vocabulary?
In the TV show, The Good Place, Kristin Bell’s character arrives by mistake in a heaven-like construct where she is unable to swear, something that she finds unnerving.
“Oh fork me!” she says in frustration. “That’s bullshirt.”
There is something slightly less satisfying about Cheez-It or Bullshirt even if these substitutes do work in the moment, not unlike frozen yogurt when it’s all that’s around on a hot summer’s day, even though you had ice cream on your mind. It’s fine, but not exactly what you wanted.
A NY Magazine article made an excellent distinction between curse words and slurs, and how in one study, use of gay slurs quickly and negatively influenced children’s opinions on homosexuals. Further, the article says, these ‘taboo’ words are all about context and offer an opportunity to engage your children in a frank discussion about language and socially acceptable behavior. And regarding that pain study, those who found the swearing most effective in pain management were those who actually swore less in day-to-day life, implying that moderation is key.
In a time when kids are exposed to so many vile words – stupid, hate, fat, dumb, ugly – from those in the public eye who used to be models of decorum and etiquette and simple common courtesy, I am going to make an extra effort to tone down my own heightened vocabulary around the kids. I enjoy the rush of a well-dropped F-bomb when I’m with other adults in the proper situation, but for now I will work on being a model of restraint in terms of language. Because while words are really not ‘good,’ or ‘bad,’ the way we use them is. Context iskey.
And perhaps if I can laugh at moments of stress and frustration instead of swearing, I will show my kids – and train myself – that even the most unfortunate events are really just that, and not worth losing one’s mind over. And if we can shake it off, just a little, we can get through anything.