“Aww, dammit!” came the exclamation, with perfect fidelity and intonation, from my two-year-old son as he fussed with his blocks.
I had no idea how much I swore around the house until I tried to stop. Those little brains are particularly attuned for language acquisition, and one of the biggest mechanisms is imitation. If it comes out of your mouth, it’s going to come out of theirs.
And I am a swearer, like my father before me and his before him. Moreover, I’ve made my peace with that. If I didn’t stop altogether with a two-year-old in the house, then I’ll just step out there and say it’s never going to happen.
Even so, when the boys were truly little, this wasn’t really an issue. I was mostly good, requiring few reminders as stark as the opening sentence. Their books, television shows, and so forth were clean. And, whatever their other shortcomings, suburban elementary schools don’t tend to be cesspools of profanity.
Then adolescence arrived.
Adolescent children have different tastes in popular culture. You can shield them plenty from excessive sex and violence and still be left with quite a bit of bad language. Plus, they go to middle school, and then high school. Need I say more there?
“Pick your battles,” like most chestnuts, tends to be solid advice. And, in the end, this is not a battle Lea and I chose to fight. We allow our boys, 16 and 13 as I type, to curse at home.
Now understand, permitting the children to say bad words is one thing, and allowing out-and-out barbarism is quite another. And we don’t. There are non-negotiable constraints, though there is no cursing-specific novelty to the constraints. For example, they understand there is a time and place—just like they understand there is a time and place they can burp and fart freely. They understand that calling their mother vulgar names would be received extremely poorly—but so would calling her non-vulgar names. Any expression including any form of God is never permissible. You get the idea. We foster the premise that it is a behavior that can be consistent with a well-adjusted person, but discretion is an essential component.
Quality over Quantity
Something we do enforce is contextual discipline. “Brevity is the soul of wit” applies not only to comedy, but to foul language. When I was a little boy, running around with my friends doing little boy stuff, I can remember deliberately packing as many bad words as I could into everything I said. No one’s here to tell me not to, and cussing is cool. And as we relaxed the rules at our house, we encountered a bit of that. Gee, you know, dropping your napkin doesn’t warrant an F-bomb, son. The words lose the impact you apparently want if you use them all the time.
(I must say, hearing my children curse less than skillfully and advising them has helped me, too.)
Are we making a mistake? Well, bad words become and remain bad words because of broad consensus, so I suppose some significant number of people will think so. I’m not too concerned about it. I mean, whenever they interview folks about the really bad seeds of society, it seems like they always tortured small animals, set fires, and so forth. As a convicted murderer marches grimly to the chair, no one ever mutters “well, he was allowed to swear at home,” as people nod knowingly.
Can I explain it to Jesus? Well, I hope such a day is far in the future, but I expect He’ll have other things on his mind. Did you teach them about Me? Did you teach them to love their neighbors? I just don’t see bad words making the conversation.
Our children aren’t yet mature adults, and that’s probably the truest measure of parenthood success. So I won’t claim that mantle for us yet. But we’re definitely closer to the end than the beginning, and I have every reason to believe they’ll get there. Lea and I have worked hard to bring our best selves to being Mom and Dad.
The best we’ve got happens to include an executive decision to let cursing fall through the filter.
PARENTS: What’s the swearing policy at your house? What has worked for your family?
Let us know in the comments.
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