As he’s become more engaged with the people and conversations around him, my four year old son (or four and three quarters, as he will very vocally insist) has begun to pick up many of the “bad” words in which I have a tendency to indulge. I’m aware that most people who know us are fairly appalled by this, as evidenced by tensed jaws and searching looks at me that ask, “Aren’t you going to tell him not to say that?”
In short: No, I’m not. And it’s not just because I don’t give a fuck (irony intended.) As with most issues in my life, I insist on making this decision deliberately and with open eyes. And as with any controversial choice, a lack of action is an action in itself. A child’s development is a trajectory of intense momentum, reflecting every aspect of its surrounding chaos, and what we don’t do is just as determinant as how we intervene.
For one thing, I’d feel like a hypocrite telling him not to use words reserved for “grown-ups.” An incident from my childhood that I now find rather hilarious, but that I confess at the time was rather confusing, was when I told my cat to sit and for some reason it came out sounding like “Shit!” (I must have been about 3.) My mom was standing by, and immediately chastised me, concluding, “I’m sick of you kids’ god damn swearing!”* Why, I wondered, was this word (which I hadn’t even said!) so offensive to her? Why was it okay for her to say “god damn” but not for me to say “shit”? And if it was, phonetically, so close to an innocuous word like “sit” that the two could be confused, what made one word bad and the other okay? Nevertheless, I learned my lesson and did not say “shit” for many years; but the questions remained. I never found any sensible answers, which is why to this day I have no problem swearing. And since I have no problem with it from myself or the adults around me, I don’t see any reason to have a problem with it from my son.
“But”, the counterargument runs, “other people are offended by it. He’ll get in trouble with teachers and with friends’ parents. Don’t you want to protect him from that?” Of course I don’t want him to run into unnecessary antagonisms. But the answer to that danger, for me, is to speak frankly and openly about the issue with him. Just as I warn him to tactfully avoid telling his preschool classmates that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, even though I make sure that he knows this, I also remind him that even though words can never be bad, some people don’t like certain words and so he shouldn’t use them everywhere. He seems to understand this, since I have received no complaints from teachers or other parents.
The idea that words can not be inherently wrong is something that is very important to me as well. Words are arbitrary signs created by humans to suit our communicative needs. Field research indicates that no language should be considered “primitive,” i.e. less functional, than any other because they all adapt to the needs of the culture and location in which they are used. Like any other word, swear words have arisen as a means of expressing what speakers feel is important; which function they serve– whether it’s to communicate strong feelings, as a marker for social divisions or contexts, or what have you– is by far less important than that they do serve any function.
This is my beef with the argument that our language is poorer for including swear words, because they limit the vocabulary of those who habitually employ them. I am a strong proponent of broad vocabularies, but you can not realistically expand something by means of limiting it. Censoring swear words is no less harmful than the removal of any other word set, in that it limits speakers’ overall range of self-expression.
That is, were it even possible for such censorship to ultimately succeed. Where there is a need for language, language will exist, and its meaning derives, again, from its function, not its form. Somehow eliminate the use of “fuck,” “shit,” “bitch,” etc., but unless you also eliminate the reasons why people use those words, new forms will quickly and inevitably arise or shift to take their place. It’s called pejoration, and it’s an attested and ubiquitous sociolinguistic phenomenon, and it’s how today’s swear words came to be offensive in the first place, most of them having originally been completely commonplace. (Which is a whole ‘nother complaint of mine– that the daily language of a conquered people becomes pejorated, while the language of the ruling class of invaders is considered polite. What’s polite about invasion and subjugation?)
And that, I believe, is the root of most censorship proponents’ real issue with swearing. Not the words themselves, or even their “crude” or “blasphemous” etymological origins, but the function they serve. It is offensive to society’s mores that individuals should express such intense anger, frustration and loathing. It is offensive that people should think or speak about sexual relations or bodily functions in terms that are not either blindingly euphemistic or coldly scientific. It is offensive that people should openly express the ugly nature they perceive in others.
If it is offensive that adults should express these ideas, it is all the more so that children, to whom we insist on attributing lily-white innocence of thought, should do the same. This is probably also why female children seem to be more harshly reprimanded for swearing than are boys: everyone knows that boys like to think about sex and poop and get mad instead of sad and be mean to each other. Girls are, per Victorian ideals, meant to be moral paragons who don’t want to get their dresses or their mouths dirty.
It is for the same reasons, then, that I wholeheartedly oppose such censorship. The answer to negative sentiments is not to smother them by excising their means of expression. It’s to deal with them as they come. If my son stubs his toe and yells “Shit! Fuck!” just the same as I would, I am not concerned that he said the wrong words, but that his toe hurts. If he throws his toy and yells “God damn it!” I’m concerned that he is having trouble problem solving and coping with frustration, not that he used the “wrong” words to talk about it. And when he gets older, if he hears ideas he thinks are dumb and says “Fuck that!” I will listen to his objections and encourage him to follow up, rather than replace, the emotional interjection with rational discussion.
There are a hell of a lot of things I hate to hear out of my kid’s mouth more than swear words. Among them are: “I’m going to kill you!” “I’m dropping a bomb on them, boom!” and “That’s for girls!”
In fact, there are a lot of other parenting issues that concern me more than whether or not my son swears. The world is fraught with dangers to his conscience, safety and self-image. I’d rather spend my time teaching him how to navigate in that world than policing his language. And if he hears offensive comments like the examples above and, rather than parrot them, responds, “Fuck that shit!”– all he’ll get from me is a sigh of relief, a high five, and wholehearted agreement.
*NB: Since initially writing this, I’ve been informed by my dad that while he remembers this happening, he’s certain that my mom was making a joke, which I at my tender age couldn’t recognize. Sorry, Mom.