The first time our little boy swore was as he was learning to speak. He was in his pram and as I pushed I heard his tiny, dear little boy voice say: F...k?
Pardon? I said, not quite sure what I’d heard and he said it again. He had dropped a toy on the ground - he was experimenting with language and the question mark in his tone was checking if he’d said it right. I explained quickly that was a grown-up word mostly used by mummies when driving (sorry, not sorry) and he might use it too when he was old enough to drive and we moved on.
From that first language exploration until he was 13 years-old, our son disapproved of my swearing the same way he disapproved of my jaywalking and disregard for ‘do not enter’ signs. I rather loved this: that he was so good, and I less so. Instead our lessons were about how to share, be kind, stand up for others regardless of personal interest, make a real contribution to housework, cook a meal, and take a genuine concern in the well-being of those around him - from beggars on the street to animals and nature. I taught him to be generous with both love and apologies and all these traits and lessons I hold as a far more reliable measure of decency than whether one is sweary or not.
So sometime around year 8 when my son began to swear openly himself (shit, bloody and f**k being the key ones) and perhaps being deliberately oppositional about some of the ways my generation was brought up, I decided I wasn’t going to sweat it.
When he laughs and tells me to 'f**k off mummy!’ I laugh and tell him the same. There may even be a competition as we theatrically up the ante and invent increasingly absurd ways in which we can each tell the other just how to f**k the f**k right off. If I hear him swearing a lot whilst on a computer game talking with his friends, I might call out - hey, down a level, buddy! And if when we argue he tells me to f**k off in anger, I don’t mind for the swearing, just for the argument.
I was quite pleased when recent research demonstrated that if you’re fluent in swearing, you’re fluent in language generally. As a lover of language, a pedant about the correct usage of terms like ‘kid gloves’ and ‘median strip’, no-one could accuse me of having a small vocabulary.
A little like my son, I first learned to swear as a good little Australian girl in ‘70s London.
I was about eight, the somewhat terrifying punks and teds were running round in gangs and their little brothers and sisters of my age were forming scary tribal allegiances of their own. Every now and then the primary schools in the area would wage war on one another and if you got cornered anything could happen. I got cornered. I puffed my skinny little self up like a wildcat, and swore like a trooper. The gang decided not to bother. I’ve never forgotten that moment when for a brief second, I had a little power. I’m not sure when I really became a serial potty mouth but at some point in my university years I came out of my shell and became a bit of a fighter - a feminist, a protester about HECS and about social inequity. Then I became a journalist at a major print newspaper, and the die was cast for several sweary decades.
I mostly didn’t curse in front of my parents or teachers or respected elders. I do recall my mother saying ‘Gretchen!’ here and there if something slipped out, and then my point would be lost in the telling off - it just wasn’t worth it to swear at home.
My husband doesn’t, on the whole, swear. I don’t know what he thinks of my language, but I imagine he thinks I’m a grown woman and it’s not his business. When we had our baby I tried very hard to change my sweary ways, but nature will out, as they say.
When it gets down to it, no way will I teach my son to be a hypocrite. If he’s swearing in the playground, as, without question, all our little darlings are at this age, he can swear at home too. But just as I teach him when it’s appropriate to eat ‘casually’ and when to eat more carefully when out with family or friends, I try to teach him when to rein it in.
That said, I have never heard him call someone a ‘bitch’, and if he did, as a feminist I’d have something to say about it as a gendered pejorative insult. He might be inclined to call a girl who isn’t kind a ‘mean girl’ and that has enough cultural connotations to capture exactly what’s going on. Strange that ‘c**t’ tends to be used pejoratively for men - it’s not a favourite of mine or his, so that’s ok. We all have our lines we won’t cross. This boy of ours is different from your average ‘out there’ boyish boy, and so maybe our way isn’t everyone’s - if he was intense or angry all the time it might be different. In any case, I reserve my right to be a sweary woman and I won’t be telling my son off for swearing either.
This piece was inspired by a conversation in the Exploring Teens facebook page – a place for parents to nut out the hard stuff.