Cuss words are a key part of my identity. I swear while driving; I swear when talking with sweary friends and with non-swearers. I swear at sports and bad movies. I swear if I grab the wrong coffee beans from the freezer and end up with mocha rather than dark roast. When I’m in an empty house and suitably motivated, I’ll even get operatic with my cursing, blasting it out in baritone. Once in a while in the car I’ll swear along with music, with bad words replacing la-la-la’s.
I’m not proud of it, but I’ve made peace with my bad habits. I know that the synapses have hardened and it’s too late to change.
But as a parent, I want to keep swearing out of the house—or at least out of earshot of my kids. I don’t want my daughters to be the ones in the schoolyard surrounded by kids eager to hear the latest curse. Even if I’m not the best role model, I believe in polite society, and want them to be able to express their displeasure with a bit more tact than Gordon Ramsey. I want my kids to do as I say—just not literally.
When my eldest was born, my wife and I made a conscious effort not to swear, worried that her first word would be the kind you can’t tell your parents. It was easier for me back then, with the adrenaline of new parenthood focusing my brain. As our second came along and the first learned to speak, I began to falter. But who hasn’t zoned out while sitting with a toddler only to realize she’s been practicing her ‘sh’ sound on a new word? Fortunately, toddlers are easily distracted. “See honey, Cuckoo is wearing a shirt. A shirt! Can you say shirt?”
Now my daughters are 10 and seven with sponge brains, full language capability and creativity to spare. Meanwhile, my new parent adrenaline is long gone, and my verbal filter has wear and tear. So, I’ve had to adapt. Here are some lessons learned from a guy who can’t control his mouth:
1. Assume the kids are listening This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to forget that compared to adults, kid hearing is at a canine level. I may think I’m free to let loose with an F-bomb sotto voce, but someone two rooms over can hear everything I’m saying (as evidenced by “Daddy swore!” from two rooms over). Children are also sneaky. The seven-year-old can approach silently and can fit into small spaces. Some day she’ll make a great assassin. Remember, the walls have ears.
2. Redirect my swears This is my main go-to option. I can’t stop myself from starting to curse, but I can often correct mid-swear. Lots of words start with the letter F. As long as I haven’t gotten to the hard “C” at the end, I have lots of options here. Flounder! Fumble! Oh go Friend yourself. The multisyllabic or blended swearwords are even better, because you have more time. But to make it work, you have to sell it. So when you call your least favourite politician a “MOTH..eaten sweater!” you have to really carry it through. Stick the landing. Remember, if it sounds like it’s what you meant to say, they’ll believe it.
3. Embrace other languages It’s important to not be myopic in your world view. Embracing a Germanic or Romance language that has slight variations on English swear words gives you the satisfaction of knowing you’re still swearing (Scheiße!), while not infecting the kids’ vocabulary.
4. Give them other language candy My 10-year-old is particularly alert when it comes to new tools to express herself. Encouraging the use of obscure words has proven useful to distract her from old boring swearwords that everyone knows. After all, wouldn’t she rather stump her little sister by sending her to find that vermillion pencil crayon? Or maybe look for something esculent in the kitchen?
5. Confront the elephant in the room Once in a while I do say the thing I shouldn’t say in front of the audience that shouldn’t hear it. My first move is to apologize, and my second is to engage in a brief but heartfelt fireside on why we don’t swear and Daddy shouldn’t have done it. They may realize I’m back-pedalling, but they also get that some people do get offended by bad language, and it’s important to abide by the rules of polite society. (This inevitably leads to a question about that time I was overheard swearing at a dinner party, at which point I inevitably give them a cookie and change the topic.)
My five-step strategy to keep my kids couth isn’t perfect, but I’ve yet to hear the kids go full Pavarotti on the F-word. And that’s a fuddling victory in my books.