I was cleaning out my daughter’s closet when I saw it: a tiny scrap of paper stashed behind her bins of dress-up clothes and stuffies. I recognized her 6-year-old handwriting right away — those wobbly caps in thick black marker — and froze, staring at a word I didn’t even know she knew.
Had my little girl really dropped the f-bomb? Where had she heard it? How had she known how to spell it? I noted with some pride that my budding reader must have sounded out the verb, though she’d forgotten the “n” in the gerund.
Most importantly, why had Sydney written it?
Paper in hand and voice modulated, I decided to ask her. That’s how I learned that my kids — both of them — have something called a “swear corner” in their bedroom closets, where they write bad words and hide them when they get really mad or frustrated.
I didn’t want Sydney to feel ashamed, so instead of chastising her for swearing, I just told her I don’t like that word and hope she doesn’t use it, but since she already wrote it, she should know it’s spelled with an “-ing” at the end like other verbs. We also discussed alternative words she could say when she gets upset, and put together a few toys she could play with the next time she feels overwhelmed by big feelings.
My husband, Addie, and I almost never curse in the house (the s-word might escape me if I run into the corner of a table or burn a pot of oatmeal). But as a writer and editor who thinks about word choice all day long, I’m fascinated by my kids’ fascination with “bad words.” My son, Marlow, who’s 10, began flirting with the f-word about a year ago. I say flirting because he never dared to utter it, but every day he drew pictures of fictional characters whose last name sounded suspiciously close to a curse word he wasn’t supposed to say. We lost many reams of paper to the misadventures of “The Fükendorfs,” who also had their own theme song sung to the tune of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”: “Fük, Fükendorf, Fükendorf, Fükendooooorf.”
At a certain point, Marlow started asking us — at times on an almost daily basis — to teach him “a new swear.” Of course, we would never do that intentionally, but there were those brief spells when Addie, messing with Marlow, persuaded him that “bakery” was a curse word or that there was a really naughty word starting with some rarely used letter of the alphabet. As a result, Marlow started trying to guess swear words — and every once in a while, he gets one. I suppose the odds are in his favor when he begins the morning by asking, “Is tet a bad word? Is tot? Is tat? Is ti — ”
Who knows how kids come up with this stuff? Well, actually, Timothy Jay does. A professor emeritus in psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, he’s an expert in cursing, having written numerous books and studies on the subject. I called the “doctor of dirty words” to better understand why kids curse and what adults should know about it. In 2013, he coauthored a report, A Child’s Garden of Curses — research that, as he puts it now, “really undermines the myth that children are naive creatures.” Focusing on kids and caregivers in Western Massachusetts (where I happen to live), the authors found that children have “the rudiments of adult swearing” by the time they enter school at age 5 or 6, with an estimated 42-word “taboo vocabulary,” from “stupid” and “poop” to words unprintable here.
If anyone is naive, Jay suggested, it’s the parents who think their kids don’t know these words, which are often as ubiquitous on the playground as mulch chips. While my daughter, to my knowledge, doesn’t say naughty words at school, these days we can’t drive past a Dick’s Sporting Goods without her pointing and laughing.
“Every parent should anticipate this because we were children, too,” Jay says. The trick is “not to react or overreact, but get down at their level: ‘Do you know what this means?’ Too many parents kind of fly off the handle and overreact; all that does is it reinforces the power of that language — and it really teaches the wrong lesson about how to handle our emotions.”
I’ve experienced this firsthand: blowing up at my son for using a bad word only to discover he didn’t completely grasp what it meant. I wish I could take credit for coming to that realization on my own, but it was our baby sitter at the time who pointed out Marlow had heard the offending word in a Taylor Swift song an hour before repeating it under his breath — and not toward anyone. When you’re a kid, she observed, “You’re just told not to say the word, but not what it means.”
Since then, I’ve started answering Marlow’s questions when he asks me about swear words he’s heard (usually at school during lunch or recess). While my daughter is still too young for some of these discussions, I think it’s time my son understands the meanings, associations, and historical contexts of some of the uglier words in our language — so that he can stand against the violence and injustice they represent. And with middle school on the horizon, I want Marlow to be able to come to me and my husband when he has questions about sex and how we talk about it in society.
At home, establishing ground rules around swearing has opened up deeper conversations about culture, communication, and our own values as a family. When Marlow was younger, he used to hate it when adults told him to “go with the flow” or “deal with it” — to his ears, that was swearing. “They’re just telling you to keep your anger inside yourself,” he says now, adding that sometimes kids need a release, too. We also talk about language itself. Marlow has a penchant for learning new ones — he’s interested in alphabets and languages from around the world.
So maybe there’s something to be proud of here. “Fluency is fluency,” says Jay, who, in another study he coauthored, found that the ability to generate swear words is related to having a bigger vocabulary in general. “If you’re good at language, you’re good at swearing,” he says.
I couldn’t help but think of James Lipton’s classic question on Inside the Actors Studio: “What’s your favorite curse word?” he used to ask his famous guests. Maybe I’ll teach my kids some Shakespearean shade for the next time they need to retreat to their swear corners. In the meantime, my son is still trying to guess new swear words every day.
“Is blart a bad word? Is schmart? Is shar —
“Enough!” I shout, forgetting everything I’ve learned.
I’m working on my poker face.
Brooke Hauser can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @brookehauser.