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.
- Show your kids you appreciate the sublime power of a well-placed curse by protecting — no, by exalting — its rarity.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.