One of the many adjustments we make when we become parents is to self-censor.
We retrain our brains to ban the D, S, B and F words, or invent substitutes that make us sound like we live in Mayberry RFD (hence “dangit” or “shoot.”)
My parents’ generation was particularly creative in that department. Some memorable euphemisms at our house: “Good night nurse,” “Heavens to Murgatroyd” and my personal favorite, “God bless America and all the ships at sea!” (We all ran when my mom said that one.)
Somehow, though, our kids eventually learn the banned words, through our own slip of the tongue, movies, songs or that wonderful educational device known as the school playground.
My 7-year-old is still trying to figure out what the forbidden letters stand for. Because her 10-year-old brother, you see, has heard some of the words and speaks of them in code with a knowing glance at me. It’s one of those things he loves to hold over her head.
We started off teaching our kids not to say mean words like “stupid” or “shut up.” They became our first “S-words.” Like good little language police, they caught me every time I said either one.
Then one night, when he was about 5, my son told me he knew what the S and D words stood for. Nervously, I responded, “Oh really, what are they?” (Because, like any good parent, I’ve learned to buy time by answering potentially dangerous questions with another question.)
“Stupid and diarrhea,” he said proudly. “You are right,” I said with relief, hoping we could coast a few more years before he discovered the truth.
A year or two later, he announced that his friend had told him what the banned words were in his family. My husband and I were making dinner, and having been through this drill before, I said absently, “What are they?”
“A-- and f---,” he said matter-of-factly, and I nearly chopped my finger off. My husband and I shouted simultaneously, “Don’t ever use those words again!” (I think we scared the bejeebers out of him.)
Actually, it wasn’t his first enounter with swearing. When he was only 2, I was driving up and down a highway near my mom’s house, trying to find a local toy store that had relocated, and I kept passing it up. After the third time, I swore under my breath, “G--dammit!”
From his carseat, my son repeated it over and over again with delight, like a little chant. I said nervously, “Don’t say that honey; it’s not nice.” He stopped, but filed it away for future reference in that helpful way toddlers do.
A few days later, we were back home. (Important background information: His favorite restaurant at the time was Damon’s, a barbeque place his dad took him to because it had, conservatively, 30 TV screens with satellite sports programming. My son would frequently ask, “Go to Damon’s?”)
As he rummaged around in his toy box I heard him saying, “Oh G--dammit, Oh G--dammit” over and over to himself. When I came around the corner and said, “What did you say?” he looked at me, face covered in guilt, paused a long moment, and said, “Go to Damon’s?”
So not only did he say a bad word, he knew enough (at 2) to create a cover story.
He’s since learned the boundaries in our family, and respects them. But lately I’ve noticed other kids his age experimenting with mild swear words, and I quickly put a stop to it. I’m not naive enough to know they won’t swear as teen-agers and beyond, but the longer we can hold off the better. And at least I want him to know it’s not polite in most situations.
So I was chagrined the other night, at the first Illini football game, when a funny but slightly drunk Southern Illinois fan wandered into our section for the third quarter. He sat right behind us with some friends from Illinois, exhorting other SIU fans not to give up (it was 28-3) and sparring good-naturedly with Illini fans — while dropping F-bombs and other niceties on my children’s young ears.
Wide-eyed, my son kept looking at me as if to say, “Did you hear that?” or “Why aren’t you shushing him?”
1) I was alone at the game with two children and didn’t want to start a fight.
2) It was 9 p.m. on a Saturday, and I didn’t really think I should tell other adults how to behave.
After awhile, the guy figured out there were kids around. He leaned forward, introduced himself and half-apologized. I told him he’d greatly impressed my 10-year-old, whereupon he stood up and announced to the crowd that my son was his new best buddy. He even (after some prodding from his girlfriend) changed his taunt of a nearby Cubs fan from “Cubs suck!” to “The Cubs are NOT VERY GOOD! The Cardinals are BETTER!”
I talked with my son about it later, just matter-of-factly. I focused on the humor and explained that sometimes adults do that, but he can’t. (The old “I don’t care what other people do, in our family...” argument.)
It’s a tough one. Kids like rules, and they like to call us on them, so they’re confused by ambiguity, says Aaron Ebata, associate professor of social development at the University of Illinois.
But those moments can also help them gain insight into other people’s behavior. People deal with disappointment or frustration in different ways, or they may have grown up in a household with different rules.
“As life goes on, they begin to learn there are some things you take a hard line on, that should be black and white, but there are a whole host of other things that are more gray,” Ebata says. "Sometimes it’s better just to ignore something. And there are other times when it’s important to stand up to it.”
Truth be told, I’m more concerned that my children learn other lessons: Honesty. Kindness. Respect. Protecting each other. Standing up to bullies.
And if you’re tempted to swear, make up your own euphemism for pity’s sake.
So, do you have any embarrassing stories to share in this department? Leave a comment below or drop me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org I may use it in a future blog post.