Disclaimer: We only have one child. He is unusually observant and tends to pick up social rules fairly easily and accurately. What works with him may not work with every child. We are only two parents, and the two of us share extremely similar values. What is comfortable for us may not be comfortable for everyone.
Our son Nicholas will be starting kindergarten tomorrow in a large, urban public school. It’s possible he will observe undesirable habits and try them out himself. Who knows what we’ll encounter? But there’s one kind of bad habit we’re not too concerned about: using crude language in situations where it’s inappropriate. Daniel and I are not easily offended by profanity, but we think it’s important to avoid offending others. We think that the policy we’ve had about profanity so far is working pretty well!
Ever since we were kids ourselves, we’ve been noticing that bad words are much more appealing to kids who believe they’re really scandalous, so we decided to take a calm and casual stance: We do not gasp or cover our child’s ears when someone says a bad word in his presence. In fact, if the person then realizes a child is present and apologizes, we just smile and shrug it off. If we are quoting profanity when speaking to other adults, we don’t spell it out or whisper it or otherwise act like it’s a big secret. Living in the city, in a neighborhood with many college students, we hear plenty of language in public places and in music other people are playing. No big deal.
If we hear our child curse, we react to his situation and feelings rather than his word choice. “Oh, your tower fell down! How frustrating!” Later, when he’s calmed down, we might bring it up and make sure he knows that these words upset some people so they should be used carefully.
We might curse in front of the kid, but we don’t curse at the kid. Daniel and I use occasional profanity when speaking to each other or our friends, even if Nicholas is listening, but we don’t use it when we’re talking to him. Especially, we don’t call him nasty names. (We don’t do that to each other, either!)
We’ve picked up his preschool’s policy that private parts and their functions may be discussed only in the bathroom. This is an easy way to understand which topics are not appropriate for polite conversation. Of course, there are exceptions–we can talk about gerbil poop while cleaning their cage in the back yard, we can talk to the doctor on the phone–but in general it’s a good rule, so Daniel and I almost always accept correction from Nicholas when he points out that we’re saying something inappropriate. This rule has prevented Nicholas from ever dancing around some public place singing loud songs about poo-poo and weenies and such like many preschoolers I’ve known! When we see a kid doing that, Nicholas says to us, “How rude!” although he also giggles.
We watch and listen to media with occasional profanity, but we avoid the extremes. We are far more concerned with protecting our child from violent entertainment than with protecting him from language, sex, or social issues. We still watch “The Simpsons” and listen to rock music, but we haven’t played Eminem or Frank Zappa in Nicholas’s presence since he learned to talk, and we don’t watch movies or TV with extended fighting and cussing.
We don’t take the name of the Lord in vain. I don’t see anything in the Bible about how thou shalt not use a certain word for excrement as an all-purpose term for bad stuff, but it is very clear about not taking the name of the Lord in vain. I started taking this seriously about a decade ago, when we became friends with a man who uses plenty of other profanity but never, ever says the words “God,” “Lord,” “Jesus,” “Christ,” or “holy” unless he means them literally. I realized he had a good point and began reforming my own habits. Oddly enough, this rule is the only one that’s been an issue with Nicholas so far–see example below. I explained to him, “God doesn’t like it if we say God’s name just because we’re excited or mad, when we’re not really talking about God at all. In fact, a long time ago God told the people that this is one of the most important rules.” Since then, when he’s said “God” inappropriately, I say, “Are you asking God to notice that [thing he’s exclaiming over]?” or, “Are you asking God to help you with [what he’s upset about]?” and usually he says, “Oops, no, I just meant that…” A couple of times, though, he’s said that is what he intended and restates it: “Thank you, God, for making people smart enough to make that cool train!” or “God, please make my thumb stop hurting!”
This policy works for me! I’m now going to give some specific examples of how well it’s working for my family, but if you do not want to read any bad words, please stop here.
To our amazement, the one time we had to deal with Nicholas picking up inappropriate language at preschool, he didn’t learn it from the other kids; he learned it from the teachers! One day when he was 3, something exciting happened, and he said, “Omigawd!” I asked where he heard that, and he said, “The teachers say it,” and named a few teachers. I explained the reason not to take the name of the Lord in vain, as above. Nicholas suggested that his teachers might not be aware of this. (I don’t know if he ever took it upon himself to tell them. I decided not to address this issue with the school myself.) He seemed to have formed a habit already, as he said it several times over the next few weeks, and I reminded him to think about what he really meant. Then one day he said it in front of our friend mentioned above, who turned on him and said firmly, “Never say that. Say, ‘Oh my goodness!’ Say, ‘Gosh!’ Say, ‘Golly gee whillikers!’ Say, ‘Oh my stars and little comets!’ Say, ‘Bloody fucking hell!’ if you have to, but do not take the name of my Lord in vain!” Problem solved–I’ve heard Nicholas forget only twice over the course of two years since then.
The only time the preschool ever informed us that Nicholas had used foul language, he had knocked over some toys accidentally and said, “Damn it!” Of course we spoke with him about how some people don’t like to hear that word, so it’s not polite, and now that he’s been informed that it’s not allowed in school he must be careful not to say it there. No further problems.
The only time I ever violated our rule about not cursing at the kid, the kid totally called me on it: He and I were at a party, while Daddy was sick at home, when I developed a migraine and needed to go home. Nicholas did not want to leave. It took me a long time to persuade him and then to give up on persuasion and drag him out to the car. Then he wouldn’t hold still long enough for me to buckle him into his seat. We fought for a long time while my pain intensified and I worried about becoming unable to drive. Finally I screamed, “Just get in the fucking car seat NOW!!!”
Nicholas glared at me with shocked indignation and said, very firmly and clearly, “Mama. It is not a fucking car seat. It is my car seat. So you be nice about it!”
And that is the only time I have ever heard my child use the F word.
Recently, my uncle was visiting and talking to me (while Nicholas was in an adjacent room) and mentioned a dog bite that had “hurt like hell.” Nicholas scampered in, very pleased with himself for deducing the meaning of this phrase: “It hurt like burning in the fiery furnace and the gnashing of teeth biting you!” I was impressed with his literary reference but also intrigued that he had interpreted the “gnashing of teeth” as meaning teeth biting you–I always thought it meant gnashing your own teeth in misery, and perhaps it does, but the mental image of giant teeth biting at people in hell is pretty compelling. Anyway, I’m glad to have my child thinking about what people mean by their words rather than reacting to certain words with, “Ooooohhh!!! He said a Bad Word!!!”
Our standard response to other people apologizing for cursing in our child’s presence developed very early, when he was a baby too young to talk. In the course of adult conversation at a party, a friend used some colorful language and then glanced at the baby in Daniel’s lap and said, “Oops! Sorry!” Daniel shrugged and said, “Ahh, fuck it!” in the tone that means, “Never mind; it’s no big deal.” Everyone laughed. We’ve since used this line several times, including just a couple of months ago. It succinctly conveys that we don’t expect people to censor themselves for our child’s sake and that we’re not too concerned about profanity . . . yet it hasn’t given Nicholas the impression that he can use profanity any old time. He’s picking up on the rules just fine!