Like any good parents, my husband and I spent our child’s early years carefully watching what we said in her presence.
We created kid-friendly playlists so we didn’t accidentally broadcast explicit lyrics. I taught myself to blurt words like “Fudge!” whenever I stubbed a toe.
And if a visiting childless friend made the mistake of speaking the way we used to when we were all in college, my husband and I eyed each other and nervously laughed, hoping the offense had gone unnoticed by our pure and otherwise untainted daughter.
Of course we also vowed to never invite that person over again until our daughter was safely tucked away at college (somehow the irony escaped us).
So when my daughter came home from school one day with a glint in her eye and the news that she had learned some “bad words,” we were prepared for the worst.
Daughter: I learned the S-word today.
Me: Oh yeah? What is it?
Daughter: I learned the other S-word too!
Me: Let’s hear it.
Daughter (leaning in for a whisper): Sexy
My husband’s thinking was, “Whew! We dodged a bullet there!”
Initially, I felt the same way. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that something had gone horribly wrong. And I had to fix it.
What did you just say?!
My childhood, as best I can remember it, was quite different. My father had this wild idea that every word has a flavor and one of the joys in life is putting words together the same way you would a feast. There is no such thing as a bad word, he would tell me, just badly chosen words.
That kind of hippy philosophy served me fine as a kid, but as a parent? It felt risky.
I mean, I can barely trust my daughter not to fart, loudly, in public places without a lot of giggling. Can she really be trusted to not shock polite society, armed with a list of naughty words? Can any kid resist something so, well, irresistible?
Yes, I believe they can. In fact, I believe they must.
It occurred to me that if I am prepared to teach my daughter someday about the necessity of condoms or the dangers of drinking until you are absolutely convinced you need to share your thoughts with the world via a bullhorn, well, I could survive a talk about a few lousy words.
So I sat my daughter down to give her an education she’d never forget.
An asshole is a body part no more nefarious than an elbow, I explained. And while you may shock fewer people by substituting “jerk” for the more common usage of the word “asshole,” you don’t spare anyone’s feelings.
But if I’m being completely honest, I told her, nothing will soothe a stubbed toe or a broken heart as much as letting loose a torrent of these “bad” words … just preferably while by yourself.
Wait, but why?
I know some may think I’m crazy. It’s one thing to teach a child what the words technically mean, but it’s quite another to teach her how to throw around these bad boys with conviction.
But there are few things I’m as passionate about as giving my daughter a voice—her voice—along with the authority and autonomy to use it.
In the end, this is an issue of control. I’m not really referring to parental control so much as the control that society tries to place upon us “for our own good.”
I don’t think it’s an accident that one of the supposed bad words my daughter learned was sexy. Society has served up sexy as a role model for younger and younger girls (witness what’s happened to Halloween costumes), while simultaneously punishing them just a few years later with another S-word: slut.
It’s not the knowledge of these words that will ultimately taint my daughter but her ignorance.
Because as long as these words remain a mystery, I allow other people to determine their meaning and impact for her. As long as I insist on protecting her from her own presumed linguistic rebelliousness, the more I communicate that I don’t trust her to be the responsible, thoughtful child I know her to be.
And if I can’t trust her to control her own words, how in the world can I expect her to one day control her own life?
The issue is not whether we should teach our kids about curse words. Like it or not, they’re going to hear them and ultimately use them. I think we owe them an ounce of guidance before they go off to college to exercise their new found right to make fools of themselves.
The question is: how do we know when they’re ready, not just for dirty words, but for the dirty realities of life? Isn’t that what we’re really worried about?
I’d be lying if I said a part of me wasn’t scared about getting a call from an angry parent demanding, “Do you know what your daughter just told my daughter?” I waited a while to write this, because like any parent, I didn’t know if my intuition would prove wise or worthy of my own reality show.
I’m proud to say that my daughter can curse with the best of them, but she doesn’t. Except for the one day when her feelings were badly hurt by some girl drama that I have conveniently wiped from my own childhood memories.
On that day, she walked up to her room and closed the door. I wisely resisted the urge to make sure the windows were shut or to listen at the door, ready to correct any grammatical mistakes. (Because, to be fair, if there’s anything worse than compulsive cursing, it has to be grammatically incorrect compulsive cursing.)
Instead, I waited downstairs, sipping my tea, until she reemerged and smiled.
“I feel better now,” she told me.
And so do I.