I’m making dinner in the kitchen and I can hear my 3-year-old through the screen door, hammering away on the deck with his plastic hammer. He’s pretending to build a house. The hammer misses its mark and hits his hand. He drops the F bomb. “Fuck dammit!” he yells, an incongruous combination of expletives that makes me giggle.
I don’t say anything. I don’t tell him it’s wrong. In fact, “Fuck dammit!” becomes a joke between my husband and me, something we utter when we drop something or get caught in traffic. It’s funny.
As a professional writer and avid reader, I'm teaching my children that there is no such thing as a "bad" word and that words, in and of themselves, are harmless. It’s how words are used that makes them “bad.”
Obviously, there are a few exceptions and words they should never say, but for the most part, we don't care if they express their emotions with an expletive. We all get angry, sad and frustrated, I tell them, and sometimes expressing it through words is the best way to vent. And they do, in some very creative ways.
Having kids has made me consider words in an entirely different way. The traditional “bad” words seem rather innocuous up against some of the words that are used to bully and hurt.
Teaching my children about context and explaining why some words/phrases are offensive to some people but not others, as well as explaining racism and misogyny to them at such a young age, is much, much harder than simply saying, "Don't say bad words!" But it’s time well spent because it makes them think about what they're saying and how it might affect other people. They often ask me the meanings of words they hear me say, which has made me more thoughtful in my word choices. Do I really mean something is ugly—or do I mean it’s just not my taste? When I say “crazy,” what is it I’m really referring to? Having kids has made me consider words in an entirely different way. The traditional “bad” words seem rather innocuous up against some of the words that are used to bully and hurt.
We also talk about situations where it would be inappropriate to say certain words. They understand there are different rules at school than at home. Some people are critical of that, saying the different expectations are confusing for kids. Of course it’s easier to ban certain words. And of course, they sometimes need to be reminded. My younger son’s teacher informed me that she heard him mutter “dammit!” one day when he spilled his goldfish crackers. She said she didn’t care (and found it amusing), but other teachers wouldn’t be so understanding. So I had a talk with my son and reminded him there are certain things he shouldn’t say at school. It hasn’t come up again.
A blanket rule of “don’t say these words” is far easier than explaining the nuances of language and meaning. But my goal is to make sure my kids are choosing their words carefully, fitting their language to the situation and not simply saying a word for the shock value. I want my kids to understand what they’re saying and why they are saying it, not just spew expletives because they’ve been banned from saying them. I also want them to understand that not everyone feels they way we do about words and teach them to respect the audience and the setting when they speak.
There is one general rule that has no exceptions in our house: No name calling. We do not call people names. I repeat it, I model it, I explain that even when you’re joking, words can hurt.
“Stupid” is a word we don’t use, for instance. My kids had never even used the word until we visited a family friend who routinely calls one of her cats, “Stupid Cat.” Likewise, her 7-year-old daughter uses the same nickname. It’s said with affection, but try explaining that to a 4-year-old.
“We don’t say stupid,” I tell him when he uses the word to describe our dog. “And she’s not stupid, she’s silly.”
He fires back, “Well Laura and her mom call their cat stupid.”
I explain they don’t really mean it and that they should call the cat silly instead. Maybe I’m the silly one, making a big deal out of a word that isn’t considered offensive. And yet, in the right context, “stupid” can be terribly hurtful. And that is my main goal: To make sure my children don’t use words to hurt others.