My ex-mother-in-law was in her car with my kids the first time she heard it. A man was taking a long time to back out of his parking spot when a little voice from behind her seat chirped, “Fuckin’ idiot.”
My daughter, age two, had spoken.
My own mother had a similar experience. One night I was working late and my mom was at my house, getting the kids ready for bed. She was helping my five-year-old into her pajamas while my three-year-old flipped through a book. And that’s when my little one scrunched up her face, pointed to the book, and said, “This snake has no fuckin’ tongue.”
I’m pretty sure Samuel L. Jackson uttered the same phrase in a deleted scene from Snakes on a Plane.
When these Hallmark moments were recounted, my first reaction was to laugh. Say what you will about manners, but there is something side-splittingly funny about a toddler dropping an F-bomb. Especially when they do so in the correct context. Her language may have been inappropriate, but her sentiment was clear. As a writer, I could appreciate those words.
I considered my options. She’d definitely learned her new buzzword from me. So, my first step was to curb my foul mouth around my children. I sat my daughter down and explained that she was using adult words, which were not allowed in our family. But could I clean up my act forever? Could she? I wasn’t so sure.
To be clear, my swearing is not gratuitous. I don’t ask my kids to “hand me the fucking fork,” for instance, or declare that “this sandwich tastes like dog shit.”
For me, expletives are a means of punctuating a moment when another word simply won’t do.
When a car cuts me off, for example, a quiet asshole rolls off the tongue more easily than “Now that sure wasn’t polite, mister!” To my mind, it is one thing to add emphasis with a (mostly) accidental expletive. It is another thing to drop a bunch of F-bombs in a fit of rage or, worse, direct that bad language at a child. One is habitual; the other is abusive.
Following my toddler’s faux pas, I curbed my four-letter usage for four years (four years!) until one memorable day when we were in the car and a shit slipped out. (I’m talking about the word shit, not an actual… forget it.)
We had just returned home from a birthday party when I parked the car and asked my kids to bring in their stuff. I give them this directive every single time we come home, which means at the time of the incident I’d asked them to bring in their stuff about 11,986 times in their life. As I gathered my own things, I looked back to find both kids halfway out the door. The entire backseat was filled with books, papers, goldfish, wrappers, and one frightening, headless doll.
“Guys!” I snapped. They stopped in their tracks and looked at me.
“Your stuff?” I said, waving a slow hand over the carnage littering my backseat. My gaze fell upon a mound of purple, sparkly Play-doh stuck to the seat where my children had just been.
“What is this?” I said, craning my body around to get closer to the offending matter. I pulled at the Play-doh. A small piece broke off, revealing a purple stain. My jaw dropped and I looked up at my oldest daughter, who was doing her best to suppress her laughter.
“Is this funny to you?” I asked. “Because this isn’t gonna come off,” I continued. “And I’m gonna have to pay a lot of money to get this removed when it’s time to turn the car in,” I said. “This is exactly why I said no more Play-doh and no more slime in the car!” I chucked the small piece onto the floor for emphasis. It landed in an orange peel next to a sock.
“Oh. My. God!” I cried in disbelief. “It is not okay for my car to look like a Chuck E. Cheese dumpster!” I continued. “How many times have I asked you to bring your stuff in and not eat in the car? Like, holy shit!”
And there it was.
I turned back around in my seat, closing my eyes to exhale. Immediately I felt shame. Not only had I sworn in front of my children, but I’d done so as a result of their actions. How was this teaching them or encouraging positive behavior? I was angry at myself for losing control. That’s it, I thought. I’ve scarred them forever. Might as well log this one in the books for their future therapy sessions.
“We’re sorry,” my youngest said.
“We didn’t mean to,” echoed her sister.
I turned and faced them. “It’s okay,” I said. “I’m sorry I raised my voice. I get upset when you don’t clean up after yourselves. But, I shouldn’t have lost my patience or said a bad word. I’m sorry I did that.”
I gathered my dignity and got out of the car to help them bring in as much as the three of us could carry in our arms. Then I did the only thing I know how to do in times like this when I feel like a total failure. I texted my friend Amy.
Chuck E. Cheese… orange peels… plastic everywhere… my text went on. And then I said holy shit. I said holy shit to my seven and eight year old!! I haven’t cursed at them since they were born.
To which she replied: Well, you had a good run.
And I laughed. Oh, how I laughed! And oh, how I needed her lack of judgment. She was right. I did have a good run. In fact, we all had. Since her “fuckin’ snake” incident, my mini-me hadn’t uttered a single expletive and neither had her sister. One slip-up in a moment of frustration did not make me Mommie Dearest. What if I cut myself some slack, as my friend had done for me?
My children are now eight and ten, and I’ve lightened up on my bad language policy. Here are my unofficial household rules around the use of curse words:
1. It is never okay to curse at someone. Even when someone has lost your favorite toy or splattered green nail polish on the carpet.
2. It is never, ever, ever okay to curse at school or in the presence of another adult. Everyone knows kids are a reflection of their parents. Damned if I’m getting taken down by some PTA mom who disagrees with my daughter’s use of the word “hoe-riffic” to describe the school lunch menu. Not happening.
3. When someone outside the family is being an a-hole, it is okay to describe them as such. As long as the conversation stays in the family. (See rule #2 above.) Like an ’80s video game, this rule comes with many levels that must be unlocked to earn the expletive. For example, when a kid at school is being mean, my first question is: Well, what are they doing to upset you? This is immediately followed by: Have you asked this person to stop? I then like to remind my kids that when someone is not nice, it often has nothing to do with you. They might be acting out because they’re unhappy or dealing with something difficult at home. This does not excuse bad behavior, but it provides a benchmark and teaches empathy. Sometimes we discover that one of my kids is contributing to the offensive behavior. When this occurs, my child does not earn the token swear word. Instead, we work out an appropriate way to make things right with her classmate.
So, how is this all working out?
Pretty well. My eight-year-old resides in a juvenile delinquent center and my ten-year-old hangs out in the smoking section at school. (Kidding! They smoke in the bathroom.) But, seriously? From what I can tell, giving my kids sovereignty over a few “bad” words seems to have taken the novelty out of using them. When a kid at my daughter’s school was “being bossy” for the 14th time, we talked about her behavior and my daughter asked if she could say a bad word.
“Yes,” I told her.
“She’s an asshole,” my daughter replied with an ear-to-ear grin. She looked at me and then looked out the window, still smiling, not a trace of hurt feelings. And, guess what? I haven’t heard word one about Little Miss Bossypants since. Which is fine by me, because that kid sure does sound like an asshole.