Bad Words: a parenting strategy

I often think it’s funny that I write about parenting, because I am not a stellar parent. I make mistakes and my kids will tell you I am often inconsistent, sometimes unfair, I can err on the side of controlling (which is usually my response to anxiety) and there have probably been many times when they have wished they had a different mother, even if only for a day!

But there is one aspect of parenting that I think I got right; something happened this morning that reminded me of it… and it made me smile.

We live next door to a kindergarten. My son was a kindy kid there and I have always loved that I could watch him play through my kitchen window. Now that he is a big Year 5 kid, I still sometimes remember his little self as I see all those little kids during their playtime. They’re adorable. And sometimes, they are challenging little so-and-so’s… just like him.

Today, there is a spirited little girl next door. She charged out into the playground that borders our house and began her reign of terror among her playmates, running through the sandpit, kicking all the buckets, making merry mayhem.

“SHUTUP!” she bellowed at the first person who spoke to her. Immediately, a teacher approached, crouched down and said gently
“We don’t say that word here.”

I could see her sizing up her teacher as if to say, ‘good for you. But we is not me‘.  At her full tiny height that little girl retorted, right into her teacher’s face,
“SHUT!
UUUUP!”  
The teacher sighed and said more firmly, “that’s a bad word. We don’t use it here.”

Five more times the girl yelled the word, every time anyone said anything to her. Eventually the teacher said, tight-lipped and in a that’s the end of that, tone,
“You. cannot. use. that. word. at. our. kindy.”
The girl gulped. Turned and ran off to the corner of the playground, where she encountered another little person.

“THUCK!” she screamed in his face, and grinned. He registered that whatever that word was, it was pretty impressive. He gathered in all his breath and tried it out for himself,
“thUCK! thuck!  THUCK THUCK THUCK!”

My phone rang, so I left my window and answered it.  I don’t know how the ‘bad word episode’ finished. But I can imagine her poor Mum will get a call tonight.  Toddlers, just beginning to acquire language, love trying out new words. They love the sound of them, the power of them. And when particular words are used by adults with total conviction, they notice them immediately. They hear them on the TV, in their kitchen, when their parents are fighting, or from older friends and siblings. You cannot avoid little kids hearing swear words, it will happen.  And it is natural for them to want to try those potent suckers out.

Once, when my girl was a sweet little pigtailed toddler, one of her favourite toys broke. She took it to her Daddy, (a.k.a the-Fixer-Upper) and he asked,
“What is wrong with it?”
she replied confidently,
“-it’s fucked”.
We were floored. Ashamed, horrified.

When I had regained some composure I sat down with her and told her that she hadn’t done anything wrong, but I needed to tell her that there are some words that are only for grown ups. That word “fucked” is a word she can only choose to use when she’s as big as Mummy and Daddy, but until then, she could say “stuffed” or “munted” or simply “broken”.  She wanted to know why she could only choose that word when she is bigger and I told her that when she was bigger and her brain knew more stuff, she would know when it was okay to say that word. It’s a tricky word, because sometimes, when you say it, people get very upset.  I didn’t call it a “bad word” because I honestly believe there are no such things as bad words, just different words for expressing different things. The definition of the word may be negative, but the word itself is not.  In our house, we call swear words grown-up words.

Of course, every kid is different, so our approach with the little man was appropriate for him, but the message was the same. He was older, and when we had the discussion about those words with him, he wanted to know all the words that we considered to be grown up words. We told him. And very occasionally, in the car, I let them both have a go at saying one or two of those words. They say them at least ten times, they laugh them, they shout them, they whisper them. I explain what their chosen word means, which is usually accompanied with shock. And then, we agree that they won’t use that word in public until they are grown ups, and then, only if it is the best choice.  Let’s face it, sometimes it will be.

I’ll never forget the universal power of the expression “fuck off”. I used it when I was a young woman being harassed by a stranger in Germany. I said it to him with anger, with all the intimidation I could muster. I don’t even know if he spoke English, but he fucked off!  A win for choice language.

Being reasonable with the kids about swear words has taken away the mystique. Explaining why it’s not okay to use them, and letting them try them out in a controlled environment worked a treat for us. Occasionally, there are things that need further explaining, like why it’s offensive to use the name of a religion’s God as a term for exasperation. But so far, so good. It’s a parenting win I’m happy to lay claim to… (so far, here come the teenage years so we’ll see how that goes, haha)!

I just thought I would write about it in case there are any of you with little ones who are about to launch into word experimentation. It might work for you, too.
But right now, I’m going to walk around my house and quietly list all the things in my life that are thucked, all the things that are not, and feel grateful that I get to mother these funny creatures.  I hope when the mother of the little girl next door gets that phone call tonight about her daughter’s playground vernacular, she is able to put it all into perspective. I like a kid with a bit of chutzpah.  You can teach a kid many things, but you can’t teach a kid to have spirit. I predict a future in communications for that one, she’ll go far.

 

4 thoughts on “Bad Words: a parenting strategy”

  1. Am forwarding this to my step daughter who was mortified her 4 yr old is using the odd swear word and what would I do. The way you’ve written this is fantastic and how fortuitous you have written it now lol!

  2. Excellent Rachel. Exactly where we are at with Nicola’s 4 year old and a good reminder as this is very much the way we treated this when our children were small. I also remember telling them that they could tell us dodgy jokes they’d sometimes hear in the playground but never out of the house and it worked for that too. Beautifully written 🙂

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