No, first first of all, a fair warning: if you disapprove of swearing or if you are my in-laws, please do not read any further because I promise you, it is all downhill from here. Swearing-wise.
And now on to the backstory, a charming tale from my childhood. Well, sort of childhood. I was probably around 17 at the time. My family and I were in church, my mother to my left, dad to my right and my sister, aged 13, on my dad’s other side. She was humming under her breath to try to annoy him. He either didn’t notice or didn’t care. I myself wanted to reach around him and punch her in the kidney. The coughing in the pew behind us made me worry about tuberculosis. I shifted in my seat and looked at my watch; at least 20 minutes to go. God.
Aside from the occasional cough (or in the case of the pew behind us, the fairly relentless hacking), the congregation was quiet as the priest gave voice to this week’s gospel reading. “My child,” he read, “support your father in his old age, do not grieve him during his life. Even if his mind should fail, show him sympathy . . . ” And so on.
My dad nudged me and leaned closer. “Mis,” he whispered.
“What?” I whispered back.
He glanced all around us, then at my sister, then back at me. He looked vaguely panicked.
“What?” I said again.
“Where the fuck am I?”
I laughed, a little bit too loud. My dad chuckled. My mother shot us an angry frown. Even nearly 30 years later, this remains one of the most absolutely perfect and funny uses of the F word I have ever been privileged to witness. And thanks to my father’s fearlessness when it came to curse words and his children, I feel like I’ve grown to have a very good handle on exactly when and how they should be employed.
I like language, I really do, especially when it’s used well. And my biggest concern, when it comes to language and my children, is not that they’ll learn to swear. Let’s face it – there will come a time when this is out of my control anyway. So no, my biggest concern is not that they’ll learn to swear, but that they’ll learn to swear wrong.
Seriously. I mean this. I shudder to think.
Take, for example, one half of a conversation I recently heard in the hotel lobby where I occasionally go to write. A clean cut man in his late twenties (or maybe early thirties, I don’t know, everyone looks so young to me these days) sat down in a chair near to mine, got out his cell phone, and, after some brief pleasantries and ‘what ups’, proceeded to relate the following story.
“So I’m driving down fuckin’ Maytide, you know Maytide? Right. Heading down the hill. And this fuckin’ guy pulls right the fuck out in front of me, and I’m like, Jesus Fuckin’ Christ, what the fuck? So I lay on my horn, I’m like, oh shit, but it’s too fuckin’ late. BAM. Smashed right the fuck into him…” And so on.
This little tale was wrong on so many levels, not the least of which was that the guy was probably going way too fast down fuckin’ Maytide. But more importantly – perhaps most importantly – this man, this jackass in the hotel lobby, has taken a good and useful word and made it meaningless. He’s diluted the word fuck down to the rough equivalent of a bunch of likes or ums, and the only thing he’s added to his story is the need to cover a child’s ears, should one be within hearing range. If this man had children (oh God, did he have children?), they would undoubtedly grow up to be language maligners just like their daddy. Great job, motherfucker.
I don’t know. Maybe I’m just picky. But it seems to me that when it comes to one’s use of one’s vocabulary, there are few sins more grievous than the random and indiscriminate use of curse words. Language can be funny or beautiful or meaningful or motivating or any combination of these things; it is not something to waste. Nor is one’s breath. And yet, this is exactly what the Maytide driver has done.
Still, I don’t think I’ll ever bring myself to say the F word to one of my kids in church. So then, how to teach them?
It turns out that like most other life lessons, the best way to share this one is as naturally as possible. Go with the flow, so to speak. And so the first (and so far, only) time I’ve used the F word on my kids, it was as spontaneous as can be.
Here is how it went down.
My sons, ages 6 and 7 at the time, playing video games downstairs. The time had come to wrap it up. “Children,” I said, “you’ve reached your screen time limit for today. Please turn everything off and come upstairs, you need to take showers now.”
Just kidding. I am terrible at limiting screen time and I would never say anything like that. What I really said, because I was already in a rather testy frame of mind for totally unrelated reasons, was, “Shut the game off and get up here! Shower time! Now!” And the rest of the incident went as follows:
Kids: [Believing that time should march to their rhythm instead of the other way around] Waaaaaah!
Kids: [Continued general whining, but, they comply.]
Me: [Noticing my orders haven’t been followed to the letter] Get back here. The TV is still on. Go shut it off.
Kids: He turned it on! He was the last one down there! I’m not shutting it off. You do it. No, you do it! I’m not doing it!
Me: You know what a bomb looks like in cartoons, when it is about to blow up? That is my head right now. Go turn it off.
Kids: But he turned it on. But he was the last one down there. But he –
Me: I am going to kill someone.
Kids: I always do it. He should do it. I don’t care, I’m not doing it. You better do it! No! You better do it!
Me: SOMEBODY GO SHUT THAT FUCKING TV OFF RIGHT THIS INSTANT.
Granted, this is very different than my dad’s church example. My dad’s F word was funny and mine was angry but the point is that we both used it sparingly. I am pretty sure that is the only time my dad ever said “fuck” in church. So far, this is the only time I’ve ever said it to my kids. In both cases it was very effective.
I don’t remember who shut the TV off. I do recall that it got done, without one more word of argument. No one argued with me for the rest of the evening, as a matter of fact. I suspect there was some level of shock involved. Like, medical shock, where I was probably supposed to wrap blankets around them and keep them warm and stable. I didn’t. I went about my business as if everything was normal. So did they, after a while, just more quietly and obediently than normal.
So you see what I am saying. Language = magic!
I am not suggesting that we should be F-bombing our children at every little indiscretion. I do believe we should make at least a token effort not to speak to our little tykes as if they were hardened criminals. I also believe we should make somewhat more than a token effort to make sure they don’t actually become hardened criminals. Allowing them to debate with each other over nonsense (and therefore, making myself complicit in listening to it) might at least lead them to a career in politics, which is my point exactly.
Also, I think our kids can handle a little more than we actually give them credit for.
Another also – I don’t think the occasional “SHUT THAT FUCKING TV OFF” will kill anyone. I just really don’t.
When it came to cursing, my dad was a consummate professional. I can only hope to pass his lessons on to my young children. Also, I hope to teach them never to exceed the speed limit on Maytide or any other road, highway or byway. But if they do, I hope they will tell the story in a way that would make my father proud.