Now that my children are older, I can talk freely about my lone regret as a mother.
I didn’t swear enough.
In two decades of parenting, no matter how many times I stubbed my toe or overcooked the pasta, I was able to avoid the S-word, the D-word, the B-word and the attendant SOB sequence. I didn’t say “hell” unless I was in church or referencing Dante’s inferno. I certainly never spoke the deplorable F-word in the presence of my young innocents, despite my proven ability to employ the singular word on occasion in my earlier days.
Instead, I developed a mommy nomenclature to take its place.
“Popcorn pickles!” I would shout if the soup boiled over.
“O.M. double-dog dude!” might be my retort if somebody knocked over a lamp.
It helped that I was a linguistics devotee who enjoyed making up words, which my husband recently began chronicling in his phone. Looking through this list, I note a particular knack for speaking the first letters of a choice profanity, only to finish out the curse with more kid-friendly syllables, as in “Fudgsicle in the morning!”
It also helped that during 20-plus years of heavy-duty parenting, I believed I was doing the right thing. I remembered my own strict religious upbringing, when uttering even “butt” or “shut up” would earn a child time on a church kneeler murmuring a dozen Hail Marys with the really bad people. I didn’t want a similar fate befalling my preschooler because she got caught mimicking Mommy: “That’s my damned tricycle!” People in polite society don’t teach their children to curse.
The thing is, our society is not so polite. Nor has it ever been. People have been inventing words to poke fun at bodily functions, express anger and blaspheme since a medieval monk used the word “sard” to describe sex, says literature scholar Melissa Mohr, author of “Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing.”
American linguists today have identified 70 curse words in current use, including the 10 we employ most often, including the F-word, which 64 percent of Americans use anywhere from several times a day to a few times a year, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll. My kids’ age group is the most active, with 62 percent of adults ages 18 to 34 swearing in conversation at least a few times a week, compared with 39 percent of those 35 and older. Public cursing is on the rise, too: A Family Television Council study revealed a 69 percent increase in profanity on television between 2005 and 2010.
Cursing is part of our culture. And when used with discretion, psychologists say, it’s a potentially healthy part. Because cursing remains taboo in many settings, the brain recognizes profanity as a tool of emotional release.
“Healthy ways to cope with stress are to work out, play the piano, knit or cook or go to church,” Los Angeles psychotherapist Nancy Irwin told nbcnews.com. “But if you call me up and give me bad news right now, I can’t run out and play the piano. … What I can do is hang up and say the F-word. In the moment, it’s a very viable choice to release pressure very quickly so the lid doesn’t blow off.”
Mind you, I have not become an apologist for full-bore potty mouths. I don’t wish that I taught my babies “Dammit!” along with “Da-Da.” I’m just beginning to wonder if I didn’t do my children a disservice by not role-modeling the hows, the whens and especially the when-not tos of such a prevalent part of our culture.
As it turns out, children can’t be kept immune from those parts of society that titillate and offend. Children learn bad words, whether through their peers, media or their parents, by the time they enter school, they know 35 offensive words, says Timothy Jay, Ph.D., a psychological scientist who studies profanity at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.
Trying to ignore those words that children already know (that their peers, the media and even their teachers are using) is like pretending there’s no soda pop. One day, they will learn differently. And then what?
My eldest child once told me that he felt like an outsider, being the only one among his high school peers not allowed to use the slang word “suck.”
We can ignore those parts of the culture we don’t understand and hope our kids don’t catch on.
Or we can recognize a cultural norm for what it is and teach appropriate approaches before they get there.
We can say “O.M. double dog dude” every time something awful happens.
Or we can let fly a little coarse verbiage here and there, so that when we do say “dammit,” our grown kids won’t want to send us to the church kneeler for penance, too.