AT breakfast the other morning, my five-year-old daughter picked up the cereal box to pour some into her bowl and discovered her brothers had emptied it ahead of her. “What the hell?” came out of her mouth, as she glared menacingly at the cereal stealers. Of course, I raised an eyebrow. **Warning: This post features swear words.**
Swearing is one of those tricky parenting potholes that can catch you by surprise. You’re focused on everyone having their seatbelts on and all of a sudden, bang! You’ve hit a pothole and you’re child says, “Shit!”. It can happen at any age – from toddlerhoood to primary school – and you’re never prepared.
The funny thing about swearing is the sliding scale of shock value. I remember when my oldest son, now 8, told me with a shy smile and a little bit of pride, that he knew what the F-word was. I didn’t believe him and got him to whisper the single syllable into my ear. Sure enough, a hushed “Fuck” travelled the airwaves into my auditory canal, forcing my shocked brain to process this new milestone of childhood.
Fuck and cunt are at the high end of the spectrum for offensiveness while bloody hell and shit are at the opposite end, it is generally accepted in adult conversation – or is that just my particular circle? But of course everyone has their own level of offense attached to swearing. Some find ‘shit’ utterly unacceptable, others utter 15 ‘shit’ expletives before breakfast.
I swear. I regularly utter “shit” and “bloody hell” and while most of the profanity is out of earshot of my children, the odd one pops out in polite company. I don’t try very hard to refrain from swearing in front of them. Although, I don’t drop the F bomb in front of them. For me, the F bomb is reserved for extreme emphasis or duress and I am rarely in that position in front of my kids – or if I am, I try to hide it from them.
But I do think I think it’s unrealistic to expect children should be shielded from this particular section of the English language. Profanities are part of our language and I am not offended when others swear in my company. I believe that everyone is entitled to swear and my personal guidelines dictate I don’t swear in polite company, don’t swear at formal occasions and don’t swear at the elderly or young children.
A couple of days after the “What the hell” incident, I was doing housework while the kids were at school and for those who know me, this is a rare event. So rare, in fact, one of my children was able to write, “Fuck you” in the dust on the glass base of the television. Needless to say, this was quite a shock to discover, and when added to the shock my mind was already coping with (that of me doing housework) it was almost too much to bear. In fact, I gasped with such force that husband dashed in from another room alert and alarmed – “What?!” he demanded, expecting me to be battling a life-threatening critter from under the couch. Wordlessley, I pointed to the offending scrawl. He peered at it, shrugged, and said, “Oh well”.
I sputtered about punishing the children until the end of time. He said: “Do we need to punish them? Just tell the offender it’s unacceptable and move on. Punishing won’t stop kids swearing. What’s the point?”. He wandered off.
I mulled it over. Punishing is what we do, isn’t it? When a child does something wrong, we punish them to make sure they won’t do it again, to drive home the message they’ve erred, to make them wish they’d never done it. Right?
But let’s face it, in a country where swearing has a long and colourful history and is part of the everyday vernacular (sure, to greater or lesser degrees, but it’s a rare person who doesn’t utter some kind of curse in times of duress) it’s unrealistic to expect that banning TV for a week is going to stop the swearing.
Children behave as their parents and peers behave and if their parents drop the odd ‘bloody hell’ in their company then not only can you not expect them to do the same, it’s downright hypocritical to demand they adhere to better behaviour rules than you.
So what did we do about the dusty F bomb? We rooted out the offender, lectured them about the use of that word as highly inappropriate for a child of their age and then moved on.
My children don’t swear in my presence and I can’t control what they do every minute of every day when they’re not in my presence. So all I can do is cross my fingers and hope that I’m successfully teaching them when certain words are appropriate and when they’re not.
What do you think? Is a lack of punishment for the second-worst swear word in the book a bit hippie-ish? Or enlightened?