Over the weekend, my son unleashed his first swear word.
The chosen curse was “bitch!” And as far as my wife and I could tell, he didn’t direct it at anyone. He just kind of said it. And it was pretty evident that he had no idea what it meant.
But that didn’t stop the household from doing some soul-searching.
I curse a lot, but that’s not the sum of my character. I usually curse for emphasis, or for laughs. But regardless of my rationalizations, those words – once so forbidden, both in my home and, more generally, in the world at large – are a part of my vocabulary. And my wife’s too. You’re probably no stranger to the occasional curse word yourself; who is, these days? (Oh, you are? Congratulations, you’re going to heaven!) Not everyone casually swears, but I’m fairly confident more people do today than when my parents were my age. We can probably blame TV.
I love pop culture and I’m no prude; I plan to introduce my son to a lot of my favorite examples of it. Just not yet. He’s only 3! Which is actually kind of good, because even if he accidentally sees a second of one of Daddy’s adult TV shows, odds are he’s not going to start shooting people or having sex with them like everyone on Game of Thrones does. Even catching just the merest glimpses of sex and violence can affect a kid (and can be internalized in profound ways), but until you’re at least a little bit older than my son, that kind of behavior is less easily copied. Repeating bad language, though, is a cinch, especially with toddlers, who are parrots from the get-go.
Kids copy what they see, their behavior reflects their parents, and how it’s important not to encourage the wrong things. Cursing is a perfect example of all three of those things. They’re gonna hear their share of swear words via entertainment, and their friends, and other adults, but it’s when they hear them from their parents that it makes the most impact. And that’s who they’re gonna copy, more often than not. So my wife and I need to take responsibility for my son sounding like a rap lyric.
I’m not always proud of the language I use, but I don’t think swearing is inherently wrong, provided that it’s not constant, is used in the right (or at least not in the wrong) context, and isn’t deployed with malice. But I’m an adult. My son is not. It will take him some time to understand the impact of swear words, and how and when to use them “properly.” Until then, those words are verboten. Which means they should probably be off-limits for me and my wife too. Which is SO LAME. But it’s the only way we’ll have a leg to stand on when we come down on him for cursing.
Sure, he’s eventually going to figure out that we’re huge hypocrites about tons of things, like all parents, but he doesn’t have to know just yet.
So we’re trying. It may not be easy, but what about parenting is? My wife and I are also trying to yell less, trying to be more patient, to eat better, to watch less TV, and to do all sorts of other pointless things. Parenting is an ongoing battle that you often lose. The important part is that you care enough to give things like not swearing a shit.
I mean: a shot.
A version of this first appeared on Dad and Buried.