My friends have a lovely little boy in an English-language preschool in Budapest, and this was what he’d learned in school that day (although presumably not as part of the official curriculum).
The little boy’s mom wrote to me for advice, apparently thinking that since I write about parenthood I actually know what I’m talking about. She writes: “What to do if your preschooler brings the F-word home from school?” I advised her to say this:
“Well, Davie, ‘fuck’ is a word probably of Germanic origin which signifies the sexual act, but also is frequently used as an intensifier, although in this case it would seem to be the former. ‘Buttocks’ is another term for your bottom, so when you say “I fuck your buttocks” what you’re saying is that you have sexual congress with my ass. Does that explain it for you?”
She continued: “My problem – how to explain things to him without direct translation [English is not the language they speak in the home] or an actual explanation of what it means.”
Oh. Then I suppose my original answer is perhaps not appropriate for the situation. Hmm…how does one deal with their kids – particularly young kids – when they bring home bad words?
Depends. In this case, you have a little kid who has no idea what the words even mean. First thing, don’t freak out. Don’t make a big deal of it. I think it’s enough to calmly tell him that those words are not polite and shouldn’t be used. The Women and Children’s Health Network advises: “You might say firmly something like: “We don’t use that word and I don’t want to hear it again” and then ignore it and do not respond if the child tries it out on you again.”
If he says, “But Mommy, you use that word,” tell him, “Well, that’s different you little fucker.” No, tell him that you probably shouldn’t, and ask him to remind you when you slip up. Obviously modeling good behavior is much more effective than the “Do as I say, not as I do” approach.
Chances are older kids will have a pretty good idea that what they are saying is considered ‘bad,’ and in many cases are simply trying to get a reaction from you. If you think that’s the case, don’t get sucked into the dirty word drama with an overblown reaction. Again, simply telling them calmly that they are not to use such words will probably be enough. If the swearing persists, though, it might be time for a bit of discipline. “Depending on their age and the circumstances, time out, suspension of certain privileges or grounding may be appropriate,” says the Child Development Institute.
If the cursing stems from anger or frustration – your daughter calls her sister a ‘bitch’ during a heated argument or your son lets fly with a ‘shit!!’ when he’s repeatedly foiled in his attempts to build a LEGO brachiosaurus – then I think it’s probably best to resolve the source of the anger or frustration, then deal with the bad language when the situation has cooled.
Of course, there’s a difference between “This homework is bullshit” and “Fuck you Dad!” The latter is abusive and needs to be dealt with immediately, but as a case of verbal abuse and not one of language. Teaching respect – for parents, teachers, siblings, peers, well, everybody – is far more important than curbing the cursing. “I would be much quicker to jump on my kid for saying an unkind thing,” says a mother in an interesting NPR article on the subject, “even if he used perfect language to do so.” I would agree entirely.
It’s also important for kids to understand when and where cursing is appropriate. Swear all you want when you’re hanging out with your friends, but understand that most of that kind of language will lead to trouble with teachers, parents, and, ultimately, employers.
I’m in fifth grade, and my good friend Bunz (yes, that’s what he was called, but that’s another story) and I are sitting under the dining room table, writing ‘love letters’ to the object of our mutual desire, a guiltless little girl I’ll call ‘Jennie’. We’re writing (on index cards, for who knows what reason) in explicit detail our admiration for various bits of her anatomy and in exactly what ways we would like to demonstrate our appreciation of them.
We’re smart enough to know that what we’re doing is gross misconduct – that’s why we’re under the table – but not smart enough to remember not to leave the cards lying on the floor. My parents, of course, discover them. These ‘letters’ are not only fairly sexually explicit, they are also peppered with the most flagrant profanities.
A bit later my father comes to my room, closes the door, and sits on the bed. He’s not angry, and he doesn’t raise his voice. He simply puts the index cards on the bed and watches as I flush crimson and begin to sweat.
My father asks me if I know what those words mean. I tell a partial lie, saying that golly gee wizz, I have no idea what they mean. In truth, having four older siblings and having discovered my brothers’ stash of porn mags, I have a pretty good idea. He asks me where I had heard those words. It is then that I demonstrate the quality of my friendship, promptly throwing Bunz under the bus and pinning the blame squarely on my disreputable associate. My father nods, and simply tells me that the things I had written were not nice, not appropriate, and that he didn’t want to see them again. And that was the end of it. No punishment, no recriminations.
I think my parents handled that extraordinarily well. They’d been gentle and understanding, but firm and clear in their message.
Back to the present. My friends’ preschooler has come home having picked up some spicy new language. You can’t control what classmates and peers are going to say around your kids, and you’ll ultimately have very little control over what they hear in pop songs or on television. What you can do is decide what your family’s policy is when it comes to cussing, and stick to it in a firm but low-key way.
It’s almost certain that your kids will be cursing like sailors (although having worked for many years in kitchens I think the term should be ‘like chefs’) around their friends by the time they’re reached their teen years, but as long as they know when and where it’s okay to do so, then don’t worry about it. As the expression goes, “Don’t sweat the small stuff. And it’s all f–king small stuff.”
What do you think? Have you encountered this yet with your kids? What is your approach? We’d love to hear what others have done about this (in my opinion relatively minor) issue. But maybe it’s a big issue in your family. Please share your thoughts.