The Art of Cursing, Revisited
A couple of years ago, I embarked on an experiment. I created some rules for my three boys, allowing them to curse in certain contexts and with a few conditions. A very few conditions. You can read the complete story if you’d like to, but the long and short of it is that as long as they weren’t in public and they weren’t cursing to hurt someone, I told them they could use whatever language they wanted to.
My goal in doing this was to teach them judgment, and I felt pretty good about how I had set it up. A lot of strangers on the internet, not to mention friends and family members, expressed varying degrees of approval or outrage — especially over my decision to encourage my kids to refine their cursing skills rather than just swear dumbly and in secret like their friends. For every cheer, I heard some version of “good luck with that” and an appreciable amount of “let me know how that goes.”
Well, here we are. It’s been two and a half years, and, about 3 weeks ago, amid theatrical scowls, acrobatic eye-rolls, exasperated sighs, and thousand-yard stares, I shut it down.
The Barnes boys, now 12, 15, and 16, are no longer allowed to curse.
While there were a lot of contributing factors to my decision to change this rule so dramatically, the biggest one was that the boys had gotten too comfortable cursing at people, especially and specifically to injure.
Until recently, it had been a rarity, and I thought one only directed at me. “I can take it,” I thought, “and anyway, this liberty is my fault — it’s on me to endure its consequences.” Then I learned from their mom that my youngest — the one who could only swear for cutes when this all began — had screamed an enraged “FUUUUUUUUCK YOUUUUUUUU!” at his step-father when taken to task over not having finished his chores, and I started paying closer attention to what had become of their language. It was bad. Not only were they using expletives as weapons during conflicts tiny and large, their skype chats and their snaps and their instagrams and their text messages had all become filled with lazily foul language where one might expect to find age-and-education-appropriate words that communicate thoughts and feelings.
It wasn’t just cursing: it was their attitudes and demeanors at large. Casual nastiness was everywhere. Creative expression was rare. Pleasantness was nowhere to be found. And while I had sometimes, even recently, found this amusing, it was mostly alarming to realize how pervasively coarse my boys had become. What’s more, considering how far beyond the line of acceptable cursing they’d crossed without me stopping them, my own flawed judgment and lack of vigilance were pretty clearly to blame.
So when we sat them down to lay down the “no more cursing” rule, the first thing I did was apologize for my misjudgment. I told them what I had thought would happen was too different from what ended up happening for me to ignore it. I went back to the original rules, and pointed out their violations and why those were problematic. That notwithstanding, I told them I clearly considered us to be jointly culpable because, as their father, I had the job of guiding them with regard to cursing as with so many things, and I had failed to attend to the cursing aspect of that job over the last couple of years.
“No more cursing, though. That’s the new rule, and it starts immediately, and I will follow it too.”
The irony, that I gave too short shrift to the obviously likely outcome of such an unconventional plan to teach my kids good judgment, does not escape me. But in the three weeks since executing an abrupt about-face, I have been surprised and heartened that not only have I stopped hearing the boys curse, I’ve noticed them become more playful and inventive, less coarse, with fewer scowls, noticeably softer.
That is also not something I would have predicted, and I wonder if a similar benefit is being realized by my boys’ peers. If maybe their friendships are slightly more kid-like, jovial, innocent, open.
Because despite what histories of all lengths attempt to teach me, I’m still, evidently, a fool.