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Why I Let My Kids Swear

Lindsay Goodwin: I want to give my children the power of words rather than giving words power over them. (mamnaimie/flickr)
Lindsay Goodwin: I want to give my children the power of words rather than giving words power over them. (mamnaimie/flickr)
This article is more than 6 years old.

I love to swear. I also have kids. Recently, with the youngest turning 4 and the eldest in kindergarten, I made the conscious decision to let them swear, too. Why?

1. Children who are allowed to swear at home are not necessarily more likely to do so in public.

This is something we understand about ourselves as adults — most of us speak differently at work than we do with our friends, for example — but it may come as a surprise that even very young children modify their language according to context. Timothy Jay, a psychologist who has dedicated much of his career to studying the use of swear words across cultures, confirmed in an email that children “learn the rules early for words, clothing, manners etc. Taboo words are just part of this larger fabric.”

One big reason I’m confident that my children will not be dropping F-bombs at school is the way I was brought up. I was raised in an unusual family where swearing was an accepted, even encouraged part of how we related to one another. My mother, a petite, freethinking Midwesterner, swore frequently and gratuitously, although rarely in anger. With my father’s tacit consent, we three siblings followed suit, and at a young age we were able to discern that the language of home differed markedly from that of the outer world. Swearing in the wrong context — whether at school, at a friend’s house, or, God forbid, when my grandmother came to stay — would have been mortifying; it never happened.

2. I want everything to be on the table in my family.  

I believe that every word has an appropriate use, even if just to describe why something is ugly. I want my kids to read “Huck Finn” and not be so immobilized by the “N word” that they fail to see the beauty in the rest of the language. To borrow from a friend who was raised similarly, I want to give my children the power of words rather than giving words power over them.

3. Allowing children to swear at home can make practical parenting sense.

There is a certain futility in having a zero-tolerance policy on children’s swearing. As NPR’s Alison Aubrey pointed out in a 2008 report, a “clear message about respect may be more fruitful than trying to police every word. By the time kids enter the teen world, swearing is almost a rite of passage.” By inviting my kids to experiment early in a safe, non-judgmental zone, I hope two things will occur: I’ll get more leverage on the stuff that really matters to me, like safety and treating themselves and others with respect and love, and when they’re teenagers they’ll have one less rule to rebel against.

Admittedly, there are some disadvantages to parenting this way. We’ve been hearing a lot from my youngest, for example, about how “Jeffrey,” a 3-year-old still in pull-ups, said “f---” at preschool. Our daughter insists that she didn’t introduce the word to him — but the frequency with which she brings it up and her poker face when she does so suggests otherwise. Interestingly, she refuses to repeat the swear when telling me the story out in public even if it’s just the two of us, already demonstrating an eagerness to master the “rules” about language. My mother shared a similar anecdote about my brother, struggling as a 4-year-old to navigate the context-driven terrain of swearing appropriately. Out shopping together, he loudly congratulated himself on his progress: “See, Mom?” he declared proudly. “I didn’t call that lady over there a f---ing ass----.”

I’d rather raise my children to swear than raise them to believe some words are too scary to be given voice.

And I have my own memories of some downsides to growing up this way. For a little while in elementary school, I was embarrassed to have friends over and wished for a more traditional family. Of course, when I got a little older, that same unusual family became a social asset: My mother was the favored carpool driver because of how freely and openly we could swear.

Another possible downside of my upbringing, depending on your point of view, is how much I like to swear. Probably too much. Maybe it has even impeded my vocabulary a little, since I’ve always been able to rely on swearing so casually.

That said, I still watch my language around my kids and refrain from swearing gratuitously. I also, at least for now, refrain from swearing around their friends.

I’m not sure how and if this policy will change as my kids get older, or whether the minor adjustments to how my parents did things will spare my kids from some of the pitfalls — however minor — that I experienced. What I do know is that I’d rather raise my children to swear than raise them to believe some words are too scary to be given voice. By letting them choose their words freely, I trust that I’m helping them learn to shape, rather than be shaped by, their language.

Lindsay Goodwin Cognoscenti contributor
Lindsay Goodwin is a former history teacher, mother of two and freelance writer who lives in Concord, Mass.

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