“Fuck,” my 16-month-old daughter said gleefully, then gave an innocent smile. She repeated the word, “Fuck.”
My wife and I looked at each other and widened our eyes. Luckily, my wife had the presence of mind to pretend that our child had just said, “Duck,” which is one of her favorite words. “Duck! That’s right. What does the duck say?”
Our daughter went along with it. “Quack,” she replied.
The awkward moment passed. But how had we gotten here? How had our child, who isn’t yet speaking in sentences, learned to swear? And did this mean we were bad mothers?
Well, the fact is, I swear. So does my wife, though to a lesser extent. I don’t see a problem with using a variety of words, as long as we’re aware of the context. As I often tell my university students, the way you talk to your grandma is not the way you’d text your friend, and that in turn is different from the way you’d write an essay or speak in a job interview. That’s an important lesson to learn.
When a student said to me, “I can’t come to class next week because I have a fucking meeting to go to,” I acknowledged the upcoming absence, but used the cursing as way into a teaching moment. We had a good discussion about how there’s usually a more appropriate and respectful way of speaking to one’s teacher, boss, or colleagues than to use swear words.
Similarly, when another student described a character in a novel as a “bitch,” I encouraged her to go a little deeper with her analysis and to not rely on a word that is often misogynist and doesn’t actually say that much about the character. My student sighed, but then was able to give examples of the character’s atrocious behavior.
But my daughter is a toddler, and she’s too young to grasp the concept of changing her register to match the situation.
While I don’t object to swearing and don’t believe there are any “bad words,” and while I will have no problem with her using such language when she’s older, I do want her to be aware of the context in which she’s speaking as well as the historical and cultural associations we have for various words. That means we’ll have ongoing conversations about language, etymology, society, power, and other related topics. We’ll critique how people talk in books or films, on the news, at school, in lectures, and in other situations. We’ll explore different types of writing and speaking, and different types of vocabulary.
I think paying attention to what we say and how we say it is quite important and also quite fascinating. Language is a large part of what differentiates us from other animals and makes humans unique, so we need to teach children to be aware of it.
For now, though, my wife and I are the ones who need to increase our awareness. Our daughter said “fuck” in imitation of me. I’d said it the moment before she did because I’d realized that several Tupperware containers I was holding were actually really greasy and slippery. I said the word in a whiny, groaning way, and our daughter picked up on it. I could have simply said, “Oh dear,” or, “What dirty boxes,” or, “I’ll have to wash my hands now,” or lots of other things. There was no real need for a curse word in that situation; the word came out of my mouth just because I’m used to throwing it around. I realize now that it was unnecessary and lazy, and that I could have spoken in a better way.
So even when she doesn’t appear to be paying us any attention, our daughter’s little ears are actually listening carefully. Children are like sponges and we have to remember that. Until she’s old enough to engage in a conversation about using language that’s appropriate to the context, we’ll have to protect her from learning words that aren’t right for the situations in which she finds herself. I doubt her nursery teachers will appreciate having a child shouting swear words in their midst.
In other words, I’m going to have learn my own lesson and restrict my swearing to appropriate and mainly adult settings.