I remember the first time I let myself swear in front of my oldest kid. I’d been trying to be good about it, but I work in publishing and it’s a business of swear words and life is stressful. Bad words can, therefore, be useful in my line of work. I was packing for a work trip and Phineas, all of a year-and-a-half old, was toddling around behind me. To be honest, I wouldn’t so much call what I was doing packing as frantically running around our apartment throwing clothes in a bag, knowing that if I wasn’t in a taxi in the next five minutes, I was going to miss my flight and set off a cascade of terrible outcomes.
I just needed three clean dress shirts and I was done. I dashed the closet open and found…the dry cleaning I was supposed to drop off the previous week.
“Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck FUCK!” I shouted, with rising intensity, a language alarm bell ringing somewhere in the back of my head.
But while I may not have been shouting to anyone in particular, I was shouting near someone. Someone who reminded me of that fact about five minutes later as I ran out the door in an old t-shirt.
“See you in a few days, buddy!” I said. “Love you.”
“Fuck!” Phineas replied, happily.
“Fuck,” I echoed, softly under my breath.
I thought a lot about swearing on that trip, thanks to some airport and plane time. By the time I got back home, I had a new household rule: There is no such thing as a bad word.
We’ve had a lot of rules in our house over the years. There was the one about the kids each getting one hour of screen time per weekend day. There was the one about everyone making their beds in the morning. There was the one about not feeding the dog from the table. You can probably guess how those all turned out.
But the bad word rule stuck and I believe this little rule had a surprisingly profound effect on my family. Allowing all words into our speech has, ironically, underlined how the words we use affect other people.
Take the word “stupid.” I’d argue that it’s easier to wound someone with “stupid” than with “shit.” It’s not banned in my house, but I’ve become highly sensitized to the ways in which it is deployed.
When my daughters fight and Frida tells Ava, “You just think that because you’re stupid.” I intervene to tell her what she’s saying is unkind and unhelpful.
But I don’t tell her we shouldn’t use that word in my house. Because we do. Because a lot of things are stupid. Books, TV shows, IKEA furniture, even people sometimes. I actively encourage my kids to talk about the ways in which they think people or things are stupid, as long as what they’re saying is substantive. It doesn’t cross the line until it’s used as an epithet. Until they’re using their words to try to harm someone.
It might sound like this requires some extra thinking, and it does. But the guidelines are pretty simple. Words can be used to describe things substantively (i.e. in ways that contain observation or analysis) or they can be used as epithets or slurs (i.e. empty stand-ins for meaning, intended only to harm). The reason slurs and epithets leap so readily into our mouths is because they are easy. They literally require no thought. My guess is that this is the root of the “swearing indicates lazy thinking,” argument against profanity. Turns out it’s not the words themselves, but how you use them. Indeed, an oft-cited 2016 Marist College study found precisely the opposite: the more fluent its subjects were in swearing, the better their language skills tended to be.
I grew up in a household where the primary rule was “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” This, of course, included swear words, but also extended to almost any critical speech. In effect, “stupid” was banned alongside “shit” and “fuck.”
Monolithic rules like this meant that the members of our family always sounded nice, even when they weren’t feeling nice. But the intent of the rule was clear. If you are feeling angry or critical, then keep your mouth shut because your input is not valid. If you’re not thinking nice thoughts, you’re thinking wrong thoughts.
This way of functioning seemed completely normal to me when I was young. When I left home and my speech patterns, ahem, diversified, it happened gradually and I didn’t give it much thought. It wasn’t until I got that first “fuck” out of Phineas that I confronted the embedded thought policing that went on in my family growing up.
It’s worth noting that the approach we’ve taken is not a cure-all. Nor am I holding up my kids as paragons of perfect critical thought who have scoured themselves of all negative behaviors. They’re wonderful, budding people, and they can also be a bunch of little shits. They get frustrated for minor (some might say stupid) reasons. Often they thoughtlessly inflict that frustration on each other in countless infuriating ways.
But the best intervention I can offer is to be neither the Word Police (simplistic) nor the Thought Police (fascistic), but what I’ve come to think of as the Thoughtfulness Police. I intervene when they’re being assholes to each other, but now I see my job as not shutting down their fight, but unpacking it, refereeing it and trying to discover what’s fuelling it. To try to divine what insights each might gain about themselves and the other. If I stopped at the words they used, none of that happens.
When Frida tells Ava, “That’s fucking awesome!” I know she’s encouraging her sister, not shutting her down or humiliating her. In that context, “fucking” is not a bad word, it’s an awesome word. And because I want my kids to have the biggest fucking vocabulary available, I let them swear till they’re exhausted.
The most common concern I hear from other parents with whom I’ve discussed this is that their kids are going to swear in inappropriate situations, embarrass their parents, and make other people uncomfortable. My standard response to this is “you have nothing to worry about, as long as your kids aren’t stupid.” Telling a stupid kid he can swear whenever he wants is like giving a monkey a loaded gun. That thing’s going to go off at some point, and someone’s going to get hurt.
All joking aside, this was something I was concerned about, and something I took great pains to explain to my kids. This rule only extends to the front door of my house. Once you go out that door, you have to choose your words carefully. I was relieved to find that my excess of caution was met with accusations of condescension. “Dad, do you think we’re stupid? Of course, we’re not going to swear at school or at grandma’s house.” Kids are already keenly aware of subtle changes in context and how that relates to speech. They know that home is different from school is different from Starbucks is different from their friend’s house. And that their sweary friend’s house is different from their nonsweary friend’s house.
I’ve had this policy in my house for 10 years now and in that time I’ve never had anyone tell me my kids were using inappropriate language. They know that their grandparents don’t like swear words, just like they know their grandparents also don’t like shoes in the house. Adapting to and respecting the rules of the multitudinous social environments we move through is a key part of becoming an adult. We learn to be flexible, and we learn about making choices, and making good choices takes practice. If I stopped them swearing, I’d be stopping a giant opportunity for flexibility and choice training.
In the same way that I’m teaching my kids that hammers should be used to build things, not crack people’s skulls, I’m teaching my kids that words are for expressing yourself and asking for help and finding common ground, not for hurting others.
You don’t take away a kid’s paintbox just because they colored outside the lines. And if you don’t let them swear, they won’t learn to do it worth a damn.