The Art of Cursing

You’ll always remember the first time you hear your kid say the f-word. Like the Space Shuttle Challenger exploding or the falling of the Berlin Wall or the morning of 9/11, it leaves something permanent pressed into the soft tissue between the two ears that apprehend it.

The first of my offspring to dip his toe into the profane end of the language pool was the middle child. (It’s always the middle child.) We were watching a football game and, after a dazzling and suspenseful pass reception, I jumped up and cheered. “Yes! That was amazing!” Jack jumped up too, like father like son, and added, “That was fucking amazing!” I must have turned my head toward him kind of slowly, because by the time my gaze found his, he had his eyebrows up and jaw dropped too, in astonishment, it seemed, equal to mine. The apology was instantaneous. He had just turned three.

I did not know the f-word at three. I was comparatively old — eight or nine — when I started experimenting with “shit” around my friends. “Shit” was fresh. “Shit” was crazy. “Shit” was dangerous. My mom used to wash my mouth out with soap if I slipped and said something that even sounded assertive - never mind profane. Thanks to the nuns, I knew “shit” was a bad word, and I wasn’t crazy enough to let “shit” slip out around my parents. But like cleaning behind your ears or cooking spaghetti, it takes time and practice and mentoring to get any good at cursing. At the end of the 1970s, in a world of good words and bad words, curse time was scarce, practice was risky, and mentors were like red M&M’s.

Now, my mother’s a poet and polyglot, and I took four years of Latin followed by four years of French before I turned 17. I like words. I’m reasonably facile with words. But I’m not much good at cursing, and my deficiency in that has been surprisingly problematic: I’ve never been inside a fraternity house (or, more to the point, a sorority house), I never got good at competitive sports, I am not a standup comedian, and I will probably go to my grave never having bedded a bona fide bad girl. It’s not that my life has gone poorly, but, like all parents, I hope my kids can shine where I’ve remained dull, and that means mastering the art of cursing.

Everyone curses. Not everyone curses well.

If you want your children to learn to curse well, I have found, you must do two things to set the stage.

First, you must obliterate any notion that words can be divided into good and bad. Any words can be used to good or bad effect. Curse words are strong words, not bad words, but they are susceptible to being made weak and dumb through overuse. To teach this is far more challenging than it might seem, because every other part of the world in which we seek to raise our children into decent adults is working against you here. And if your children inhabit that world without obedient awareness of the line between good and bad words, they will encounter constant friction.

Therefore, the second thing you must do is to teach your children to recognize the nuanced differences between public and private, at least insofar as it relates to cursing. They have to understand that while public and private may be mere constructs, they are indispensably meaningful in that deft navigation of them marks a person as well-adjusted whereas flouting them will inevitably land you in jail. Kids obviously need to learn this even if they aren’t going to become professional cursers, so do this anyway. Make things concrete for younger kids by giving them specific rules to follow. For example: If it’s just you and one friend, and your friend curses first, it’s okay for you to curse too. But don’t do it first, and don’t do it if there’s a third person around, because if you do, you’ll get a bad reputation.

With both of these preparations, I recommend starting early, and I recommend you focus more on modeling than preaching.

Practically, and perhaps ironically, this likely amounts to a whole lot of restraint when it comes to your own cursing around your kids. Focus on promoting rarity, excellence, context, and play.

  1. Show your kids you appreciate the sublime power of a well-placed curse by protecting — no, by exalting — its rarity.
  2. When you do curse, settle for nothing less than your very best. Whether an understated monotone curse or an animated swear fiesta, show respect for the form.
  3. Let the contexts in which you curse clarify the rules — and the rare exceptions — regarding when, and around whom, it is acceptable to curse. If you spend your Saturday mornings drinking crummy beer and swearing at the television, you can bet your kids will grow up to do the same.
  4. Finally, create a safe space for your kids to experiment with cursing. For my family, that’s the car. It’s the one exception to the don’t be an idiot and swear in groups of more than two rule. Whenever I and any combination of my three boys are alone in the car, they’re allowed to curse. Any words they want, as long as they’re not using them to berate. You could be forgiven for thinking this is a terrible thing, but you might be surprised to know that, no matter how often this opportunity presents itself to them, they almost never avail themselves of it.

Yesterday evening, on our way to get some ice cream, my youngest son had his first really wholehearted cursesploration. He started off circumspect, circling around the thing instead of jumping in.

“Dad,” he said, “Jack told Siri to suck his dick, and Siri said OKAY!” He grinned and cast a gotchafucker glance at his brother, then waited for me to come down on Jack for being crass.

“Alex,” I said, “if you want to curse, now’s your chance. But don’t waste it repeating something Jack said.”

“But he told Siri to SUCK HIS DICK,” he repeated.

“Great, so two mindless curses are better than one? Is that your point?” I looked at him and waited.

We all waited.

“Shit! Fuck! Fucker!” he yelled back after the pause, and the car rocked and lurched with the explosion of laughter that followed.

It was a rare moment, and it was gone as quickly as it had arrived, but we savored it. Then, we arrived at the ice cream stand. Car doors opened as decorum returned, and as we all enjoyed our soft-serve in the sun, I realized that this was the first time I’d heard Alex say the f-word. My innocent youngest, my straight-A student, the one of my kids that I’d ever dared to think might just turn out perfect — was showing the first glimmer of interest in the art of cursing. He’d just enthusiastically f-bombed the car and everyone in it. It had been clumsy and cute, but I could tell that it was his best effort. Maybe not amazing — maybe only fucking amazing — but he’s only 10. And after all, true fucking art takes time.

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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.

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