For the third time in a month, my daughter's fourth grade teacher has written on the class website about students' unruly behavior and inappropriate language. It seems the children are so preoccupied with an abundance of newly discovered curse words that they aren't sitting still, paying attention to lessons or finishing their work. Students caught swearing, she writes, will be asked to call their parents and repeat the profanity they used in class.
So far, I have not received a phone call.
I can't be sure, but I suspect the reason might be because my husband and I let our 9-year-old swear at home. Angie says the s-word when she drops a book on her foot or forgets her homework at school. She says "asshole" to describe someone who is being selfish or careless.
While she's intrigued by the middle finger, about what it means and why, she has used it so far only accidentally. She doesn't say the f-word, and she claims she doesn't want to. She hates that word. I know this because I've used it a few times in her presence, usually in traffic, and she has asked me not to. Out of respect for her, I try my best to avoid it.
My husband and I decided to let her use these words last year, after we saw a little boy on the playground calling his friends "f*cking assholes" out of his mother's earshot. He sat high on the monkey bars, ordering his pals around and then cutting them down, all the while glancing in his mother's direction to make sure she couldn't hear. I didn't want Angie to be like that boy, so spellbound by the power of expletives that they come to define who he is and how he treats people.
We've also told Angie that it's inappropriate to use profanity in mixed company. They are "at home" words -- OK to say in her bedroom or in our living room or even at the kitchen table, but not OK at the playground or the supermarket or school. Yes, they are just words, with only the power we assign them, but some people don't like to hear them. Sometimes they interfere with the business at hand, whether that is learning to play with others at the park or practicing fractions in the classroom.
According to a study by psychologists Timothy Jay and Kristin Janschewitz, swearing typically begins at age two. By the time children start school, they understand upwards of 40 offensive words. Jay says children use the language in the same way adults use it: to tell stories and jokes, to manage stress and tolerate pain, and as a substitute for physical aggression.
One evening when Angie was two years old, she searched the house for her beloved pacifier. I was in the kitchen warming her milk, so I didn't have time to help her. Suddenly, I heard her exasperated voice: "Goddamn it! Where's my binky?"
I made no sound, gave no reaction. But after she went to asleep, I had a good laugh. She had used the word in correct context. She had blown off some steam. And she had found her binky with no help from mama.
Our daughter also has big emotions. When she's happy, she's really, really happy. And when she's sad or angry, she sometimes directs those feelings inward. In the past, she has scratched and hit herself out of frustration. Now, she says "Shit!" and moves on, which as far as I'm concerned is much better.
Part of my job as Angie's mother is to teach her how to live in the real world. All around her, there will be swear words and salty language -- in movies and books, in conversations overheard on the street, and at sporting events and social functions. Teaching her what these words mean and how to put them into context helps her make sense of her surroundings. But shielding her from them only makes them more alluring.
When she comes home from school and asks us what "dickhead" or "bitch" means, we tell her. Nothing is taboo in our house. Recently, she has asked about God, alcoholism, race relations and eating disorders. By comparison, swearing is small potatoes.
Last year, I told her about reproduction, not the two-people-fall-in-love-and-make-a-baby situation, but the real nitty gritty -- from erections to fallopian tubes. I also told her that some kids at school might not know the truth about sex yet, so she should keep this information to herself out of respect for her classmates' and their families. She agreed. And now she knows that if she is curious about anything -- anything at all -- she can ask her parents and her parents won't freak out. That's a much more important lesson, if you ask me.
I've heard people say cussing is a morality issue. It's not. Our daughter is a good person. She is responsible at home. At school, she sticks up for kids who can't stick up for themselves. She knows swearing does not make a person bad. Being disrespectful and treating others poorly makes them bad. To us, these issues are separate.
Sure, our daughter might be swearing at school, just not getting caught. We might get one of those phone calls before the year is out. If that happens, there will be consequences because Angie has been warned about the parameters of cursing. But we won't act like the sky is falling.
She's not perfect, and neither are we. I swear, too -- at work, at the supermarket, sometimes even at yoga class. Part of growing up is learning how to define right and wrong for yourself, and understanding that there is a time and a place for everything.