The very first time a curse word came out of my son’s mouth, it was an accident. “Fuck,” he said casually one day. I think he didn’t know what he had said. He learned quickly not to use that word and it was years before the issue arose again. But, just before he entered third grade, it came up at dinner one night.
It started with questions about “bad words.” He was coyly trying to imply which word he meant by rhyming it or saying it was the word at the end of something else, partly in an effort to shield his younger sister from the conversation. He had been reading, extensively for some time now, a book about the Mets which, apparently, included the rather colorful language that baseball players sometimes use.
We learned that his friends also, occasionally, use “bad words,” and he asked what he should do about it. We told him that sometimes kids need to be able to say things among themselves and that we understood but he needed to use his judgment about whether it was appropriate and, furthermore, we didn’t want to hear him saying it to us. In fact, there were certain words, we told him, that he would be in a lot of trouble if he used with us and we made it clear which ones they were. He thought about this and then wondered aloud what would happen if he were to use a bad word and one of his friends told a teacher. “Well,” my husband said, “then that wasn’t the right time to do it.”
My son wasn’t done with his questions. “What if I want to write a story and have one of the characters say bad words? Is that OK?” We paused the conversation to discuss it after my daughter went to bed because the nuances were getting too great. When we resumed, I explained the answer from a writer’s perspective. “You have to have a very good reason to have a character need to curse.”
Then he asked what cursing was and we understood that we were truly working from the most basic level. After defining cursing, I continued by telling him about a character in one of my plays that curses all the time because she is a very angry character. In contrast, her younger sister abhors cursing and never does until one emotional crux moment when it flies out of her mouth. In addition to having a good reason for a character to curse, my husband and I told him that he was allowed to write stories at home that had cursing but he needed to discuss it with his teachers before doing so at school.
On the first day of school, my husband ran into the head of the Lower School who we knew would get a kick out of the conversation (she did). My husband also mentioned it to my son’s teachers, just in case it came up in his writing. As it turns out, my son also asked them about it and they gave the same response: “As long as there is a good reason and it is not just for shock value.”
We learned a few days later that my son was still distinguishing what words were curses from his Mets book and what weren’t when he said, “Oh, shit!” while playing chess. I calmly looked over and asked what he had said. He repeated it and my husband and I informed him that that was a bad word. He was surprised and then told us the original phrasing from the Mets book where he had learned it. We told him we weren’t angry but that he now understood that this was a bad word.
We have encouraged him to ask us about words so that he knows. He is an avid reader and often reads things above his grade level, which means he is likely to encounter cursing sooner. Besides, we live in New York City where people curse on the subway all the time and are not very thoughtful about the fact that children are standing nearby. Our feeling is that it is better for him to be comfortable asking questions and feeling that he will not get in trouble asking about it rather than trying it out on his own without knowing what he is saying.