It’s amazing, the way kids pick up language. From their earliest babblings and utterances (those very first a topic of fierce debate for years to come), to their gradual assimilation of the words they hear around them into their own (gibberish-peppered) personal lexicon, it’s a magical process, and one for parents to savour.
Only, I never realised quite how foul-mouthed I was, until I had children.
They never fail to pick up on it, the swearing. Our daughter and son, six and four, know the “bad words” to listen out for and the currency they have.
“Daaad! You shouldn’t SAY that word“ they’ll chastise me when I can’t find my keys, have stubbed my toe on a toy truck, sat on my glasses, or discovered a puddle of cat-urine in the corner of the bathroom. Their eyes, though, twinkle with the knowledge that every verbal slip I make strengthens their “but DAD says it” defence, for some dreaded moment in the future when they’ve dropped the f-bomb, doubtless out in public.
One time, back when our little girl was still a toddler, she witnessed my gradual loss of cool out in the back-yard when a posse of huge mosquitoes wouldn’t leave her alone. A few weeks later, we were at a barbecue with some other parents and kids, and talk turned to the same summertime pests.
From time to time nothing beats turning the air blue with a stream of expletives, delivered with gusto and crisp enunciation.
“Yes, mosquitoes are f***ers,” our sweet-faced child announced to the table, “aren’t they, daddy?”
(I should have known from the outset she was trouble - her very first word wasn’t “dadda” or “mamma”, but “duck”, quickly followed by “clock”, though the thing was, she could never quite master the “l” sound, so that she’d be sitting up in her pram, cheerfully shouting “cock!” at passers-by...)
But where do you draw the line? I understand society is divided on profanity, but generally I’m all for it. It loses effect when over-used, true, but from time to time nothing beats turning the air blue with a stream of expletives, delivered with gusto and crisp enunciation.
“How about “damn”, daddy? Can I say “damn”?” my four year-old son, always in the mood for an interrogation, asks me.
Damn? Clark Gable in Gone With The Wind. Biblical gravitas. Shades of hepcat.
“Well, okay. Damn is fine, but only at home, and only when you’re, you know, really cross.”
“What about “bugger”, dad? Is “bugger” alright, too?”
My own use of that word is in unconscious homage to my mum, who favoured it, alongside “sod”, and both prefaced with “oh, you silly -”, to condemn any manner of foolishness during my boyhood. Though, given their actual dictionary definitions, both “bugger” and “sod” seem bizarre labels to foist on a child...
“No. Not “bugger”. Don’t say “bugger”, I rule.
“But you say “bugger”, daddy,” whines the boy, never one to miss a trick. “You called me a silly bugger when I put Thomas the Tank Engine down the toilet, didn’t you?”
“Yes, well... Oh, yes! Thomas the Tank Engine... Let’s go and see if we can fix him, shall we?”
It seems I’m going to have to learn to watch my tongue. Swearing is to join that long list of innocent and simple pleasures, along with lying in at the weekends, listening to decent music in the car and having a social life, that must now be consigned to the rose-tinted fog of my pre-fatherhood past.
Swearing is to join that long list of innocent and simple pleasures that must now be consigned to the rose-tinted fog of my pre-fatherhood past.
Because they’re on to me, these children of mine. And if they are this alert to my flawed role-modelling, to the merest hint of hypocrisy now, what chance will I have once they’re...ulp...teenagers?
In the back of the car, the boy is singing a song.
“Damn, damn, damn, damn,” it goes, “buggerbuggerbuggerbuggerbugger.”
In the rearview mirror, I see him watch me for reaction.
“Fu-fu-fu-fu, FUSSY OWL!” he shouts, at which he and his sister dissolve into giggles.
I can’t help it, I take the bait.
“Who’s a fussy owl, Blake?”
“There was a fussy owl on TV the other day, wasn’t there?” (he looks to his sister for corroboration, and surely I’m imagining the wink that passes between them?)
“Yes, it was a fu-fu-fu-fu FUSSY OWL!”
I adopt the dad voice, half an octave deeper than my regular pitch, not loud, but clipped and clear to convey no-nonsense authority (I am rubbish at it).
“Okay, you two, that’s enough.”
“But we didn’t say the “f” word, dad...”
“No, we didn’t, daddy...”
Their bleated protests continue all the way home.
Children. Blessings, of course, bundles of joy, their evolving language and personalities miraculous to behold.
But they really can be....fussy owls.