“How about f*ckface?” I ask my nine-year-old, as I lob a tennis ball to him. “Ever heard that one?”
“Oooh, I love that one,” he replies, effortlessly making the catch. “Throw it harder next time.”
So we’re playing catch—and talking swear words. What had started a few minutes earlier as an unintentional “sh*t!” in response to the ball jamming my pinkie (see? Not a sports person) had morphed into an enthusiastic conversation about cursing. I had Max’s full attention, which was becoming a rare event. All he ever wants to talk about is baseball, video games and World War II, so he goes to the house expert on these topics: his dad. I’d lost my errand companion months ago, too. (If your kids still find grocery shopping fun, enjoy it while it lasts.) Max had always been clingy, so these changes weren’t completely unwelcome. But they also left me feeling a bit disconnected.
Our swearing policy is pretty relaxed. Max is allowed to curse at appropriate times—a painful toe-stub, a Maple Leafs overtime loss—but not gratuitously, not at school, not in front of his little brother, and definitely not at anyone. A stereotypical first-born rule-follower, he has no trouble adhering to those guidelines.
But he wasn’t just learning swear words from us. Max was coming home with new ones he’d heard in the schoolyard. “Mom, Lucas said motherf*cker at recess today and Hunter said b*tch, and they both got sent to the office.” (There’s nothing more surreal than hearing your chubby-cheeked kid casually drop the word “motherf*cker.”)
So by the time we were at the park playing catch that day, Max had a sizable vocabulary of swear words in his arsenal and had proven himself mature enough to stick to the tamer ones, and only at the right times. Which is why I figured it’d be OK to take it up a notch, as a way to connect with my boy.
“Tell me every swear word you know,” I said. His eyes lit up—permission to speak the forbidden words! He eagerly complied, rattling off nearly a dozen.
“Are there any others?” he implored.
I had to weigh my options quickly. “That’s about all of them” would have been perfectly appropriate. But after months of feeling like I had less and less to offer as Max’s passions and interests diverged from mine, here was a rare bonding moment. I didn’t want to squander it.
“You know the word asshole, but do you know asshat?” I asked.
“Asshat? That’s hilarious.”
“And there’s dumbass, too, if we’re sticking with the ass theme,” I added.
“I’ve think I’ve heard that one before,” he said. “What else?”
“There’s jackass. It means idiot.”
“Jackass,” he repeated, testing how the word felt rolling off his tongue.
I wish all the swear words I taught him that day were this innocuous. Think of every bad word you know and you’ll soon run into some pretty racist and sexist turns of phrase. Terrible words that should never be spoken. But they are spoken, in schoolyards and workplaces, in movies and music, on YouTube and Instagram. I figured if Max hadn’t heard them yet, he would soon. So I said those, too. The conversation turned heavy as we delved into topics like slavery, oppression, homophobia, sexual assault and misogyny.
I didn’t hold back, and as it turns out, that was apparently a good parenting move. Emma Byrne, author of Swearing Is Good for You, thinks parents are totally misguided when they try to shield their kids from curse words. “We do kids a massive disservice when we try to preserve their innocence in some way by banning swearing,” she said in a recent interview with CBC Radio. She’s even on board with talking about the racist, sexist stuff. “As parents, if we want to instill our values in our kids, then we need to be able to name those words and to talk about those words before they come across them in context out in the world.”
Max was definitely down with the way the conversation was going. I imagine it was pretty thrilling for him. Swearing gives kids a chance to feel grown up and rebellious. Plus, Max has always had a weirdly mature sense of right and wrong and a deep interest in social justice—so he just lapped up my lessons on the power of words. Here at long last was a topic that fascinates Max and on which I, not his dad, could be the expert. All I had to do was engage him in talk about fairness, equality and discrimination, and I’d have his attention.
That said… this is pretty heavy stuff for a kid who’s still nervous about going into the basement alone. And just as I was thinking it was all getting just a bit too heavy, Max, too, was deciding he’d had enough. As only kids can, he did a complete 180 and changed the subject to ice cream flavours, and that was the end of it.
At least, until bedtime that night. “Mom?” he said, as I was leaving his room post-goodnight kiss. “I had a great time playing catch with you today. Dad’s way better at it, but I want to play with you sometimes too, OK?”
“Sure, sweetheart,” I replied. “I’d f*cking love to.” His look of shock quickly turned to giggles as he processed the joke. “Goodnight, mom.”
The writer has requested anonymity.