Language Warning: What Should You Tell Kids About Swear Words?

Swear Jar - Image of Glass Jar Filled With Coins After Using Swear WordsOne of my first blog posts on my first blog was called The Day My Daughter Crapped Herself At Woollies. It wasn’t actually about baby poo, it was about the misuse of the word ‘crap’. Kids say the darndest things, as we know. And they usually say them at the very top of their voices, in a public place, next to someone afflicted by resting bitchface. That story was about an innocent mistake, but as my children are getting older, I often find myself wondering what you should tell your kids about swear words?

Theory 1: The only rude words are those that hurt someone

The challenge is that everyone’s boundaries are different. Some households let the Fs and Cs fly with merry abandon whilst others tut tut at a ‘bloody’ or a ‘damn’.  It’s a lot like TV violence. I, for example, can’t stomach Game of Thrones, but I loved Pulp Fiction. One woman’s gratuitous gorefest is another’s postmodern masterpiece. GoT really needs a better soundtrack.

When it comes to our kids, we often expect a bit of ‘do as I say, not as I do’ to govern their language usage; we ask them to tolerate the fact that we use certain words they’re banned from uttering. It’s quickly becoming clear that I can’t shield my kids from the charming language they’re likely to hear in pop songs or in the school yard. But how much does it really matter?

The topic has come up a few times this week during school holiday play dates.

“They’re just words,” said one friend. “I couldn’t care less if they say ‘swear words’ as long as they don’t use words that affect people’s self-esteem. ‘Stupid’ and ‘idiot’ are the swear words in our house!”

This makes a lot of sense to me. Words are basically just signifiers. They only mean something when there’s a shared recognition of their sense. It’s all very arbitrary, so there’s no logical reason to fear one group of letters over another.

But logic is only one small part of the human experience of language. Baggage makes up the other 99%. There’s the baggage of history, the baggage of personal experience, the baggage of persuasive advertising, the baggage of multilingual communities – a whole airport carousel of misshaped and mismatched luggage with no helpful identifying ribbons.

Theory 2: Some words are OK for adults, but not for children.

Baggage leads to misunderstandings and differing perceptions of what’s appropriate. In our house, Mr 5 has just discovered the planet Uranus. I probably don’t need to elaborate. Suffice it to say that he is happy to talk about this planet to anyone who will listen. This is cute enough when you’re five – more of a reportable behaviour as an adult. But then ‘anus’ is not a ‘swear word’, merely a body part, and yet not a favourable topic of dinner party conversation.

I was sharing a wine with a couple of mum-friends poolside this week, when one of their curly haired angels gathered up all her 3 years of life experience, looked her mother in the eye and called her an arsehole. I gasped, then crapped myself laughing (see what I did there…)

We were all well aware that this normally delightful little one was trying to get a reaction. She knew full well that this wasn’t ‘appropriate’ language, although she had no idea what it actually meant. She made her brother laugh and her mum roll her eyes in exasperation – winning!  The only thing she did ‘wrong’ was to be a cute 3 year old using a grown up word, yet it still held the power to shock.

So, personal taste and context are the things that govern when it’s OK to drop a timely A bomb; two of the most nebulous and subjective deciding factors we have on offer! Have you ever suffered from foot-in-mouth disease at a party? Imagine how it feels to be a kid!

Theory 3: Choose whatever works for your family and stick with it.

In my house, I run this line:

  • “There are certain words that you might hear other people say, but I don’t want you to say them. They are not polite, they might hurt someone’s feelings and there are more interesting ways to describe things. Please try to make a better choice.”

Well, that’s my theoretical line. More often what comes out is something like:

  • “Yes, I know what I said! And NO you can’t say it! No, not ever! No definitely not at school! I don’t care if your friend Thomas says it. Well, that’s his mother’s problem. Your teachers do not approve of swear words. Right, no more iPad. I said NO!”

Smooth, huh?

So, I’d love to know. How does it go down in your house? What do you think you should tell children about swear words?

2 comments for “Language Warning: What Should You Tell Kids About Swear Words?

  1. January 13, 2017 at 6:21 am

    I get my kids to catch me up when I swear. If I say sh*t in the car because someone cuts me off, one of the girls will pipe up ‘we don’t say that word’. I guess everyone is different in how they view swearing. It’s not a language I’m proud to use, but will use it because sometimes there are no other words that give punch. I don’t want my girls to swear though. I just don’t think there is any need for kids to be swearing and they don’t always understand what they’re saying or what the swear word means.

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