From the potty-mouths of babes

What do you think about swearing in front of your kids? Is it a big deal if your children let bad words slip out every now and then? Do you even give a sh*t?

Editor’s note: Today’s feature is the newest installment of our parenting column written by two sets of Richmonders: Jorge and Patience Salgado (veteran parents of four gorgeous children), and Ross and Valerie Catrow (parenting rookies who have only been doing this “raising a child thing” for a little while). Check back fortnightly to watch them discuss/agree/disagree/throw down over all kinds of parenting issues, Richmond-related and beyond.

Britney Spears is in the news again, this time for her kids’ interesting habit of repeatedly swearing while in public. Although the outrage seems to more from her choice to not discipline them for the behavior, rather than the behavior itself, it got us thinking…

Today’s question: Do you swear in front of your kids?

The Salgados

There was a swear jar in my house when I was a kid. Anyone who said the “S” word had to put a quarter in the jelly jar. The “S” word wasn’t exactly the big bad one you are thinking of.  It was “shut-up.” I’m not sure what would have happened if I mentioned that the swear word was actually two words. The smart ass response might not have been welcomed in the very same house that refused to use the word fart; we called it an “answer”.

We were a houseful of girls with a traveling father (picture Little Women without the hoop dresses). It was just unrefined and highly offensive to swear, ever. My poor mother, even for all her efforts, managed to rear four daughters who can keep up with most sailors, if in the company of them. Maybe it was our one rebellion, since we didn’t run out and do drugs or something? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure letting children curse so they will not be repressed in some way isn’t a solution either.

We all sort of chuckle when a two-year old repeats a four letter word without having any knowledge of its meaning. A fifth grader dropping an F bomb is a completely different story. Where do we draw the line? If you do express yourself in colorful language, when does it become inappropriate around children? Our children were very unaware of conversation for a long time, but when they started noticing, Jorge gave me the Judgey Joanna eyes every time something unacceptable slipped out. It seemed to happen in moments of humor or times when shoot, crap, darn it, and freakin’ just won’t do.

Some might suggest swearing falls under the large umbrella of the old “Do as I say, not as I do.” but those trip you up after a while, so I think we are sticking with the curbing your language approach. There are still moments of total failure, but I guess it keeps things exciting. When all else fails we adopt the rule of my 11 year old niece Madeleine, “Adults can swear, kids can swear, just never in front of each other.”

The Catrows

I’m a writer with a degree in English from the University of Richmond. My husband gets an odd amount of pleasure from investigating the roots and origins of any and all words he comes across. We know our words. Yet sometimes it’s still impossible for us to find a suitable replacement for “sh*t” when the occasion presents itself. And yes, in the 9 1/2 months that our child has been on this planet, he has probably heard this word (and its more and less explicit cousins) a few times… probably more from me than my husband. Ok, definitely more from me than my husband.

And that doesn’t really bother me.

I know! GASP.

We’re of the mind that it’s all about how you frame the behavior for your kids. We view swearing as “grown up behavior,” just like drinking, smoking, having sex, etc. And just like those other grown up behaviors, there is a time and a place.

We are not naive. We know that saying “Only grown ups can do that” does not mean that our kid will make it to adulthood without uttering a single swear word. TV, movies, hell, even the school bus (or perhaps especially the school bus?) will expose your kids to so much foul language it would make you blush. So, we say embrace the inevitable by teaching your kids about context early on. Just like any other adult behavior, you eventually learn when it is acceptable to swear and when it is not.

For example, most adults do not drink while at work or have sex while at the grocery store. Most adults also have a pretty good grasp of when it’s ok to let a bad word slip into conversation. And if it ends up not being appropriate, they face consequences and apply that experience to future behavior. Application and adaptation! They are great things.

This doesn’t mean that we’re going sit our kid down and say, “Swear words are great! Go forth and use them freely to see what you can get away with.” But when (yes, when) he says one, we’ll remind him that those words aren’t for kids and enforce whatever consequences we deem necessary when it comes up.

Do we try to avoid using bad language? Yes. Would we prefer our child not swear at all? Of course. We’re all about raising a respectful young man in this house. But we’re more concerned about the intentions behind his words (whether they be standard vocabulary or of the more “colorful” variety) than the words themselves. I think we can all agree that there is a very big difference between saying “Oh, sh*t!” and calling some “a piece of sh*t.” After all, if you insult someone using G-rated language but with *that* tone of voice and look on your face, you might as well have called them a f*cking loser and gotten on with your day.

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Patience Salgado

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