Somewhere along the way our kids learn the word fuck. Maybe a three year old says it and we laugh (So cute! So outrageous!), or sometimes a 6 year old figures out it’s got weight and throws it about with force (I’ve heard a kid say ‘fuck you, dada!’ with a vengeance). Regardless of when our kids hear it or use it, it’s wise to tread with some care because, while it’s just a word, it’s a word with a whole lot of power.
We drop the f-bomb when some one cuts us off, or when we’re stuck listening to soft rock while on hold with a phone company for more than 8 minutes. Maybe it slips out when we stub a toe or accidentally spit toothpaste on our shirt. It denotes discontent and is used as as intensifier. We also chose this word when we feel disdain for others or use it to degrade them. Finally, we put the word to use to describe sexual intercourse. Given these varying usages, how can we not associate the contemptible with the sexual?
I drop the f-word on a not-so-infrequent basis. I rarely use it to degrade others but the gratifying combination of letters makes its way past my lips on a regular basis.
When I was about 11, my mom came home, late for a meeting. As she hurried to ready herself, she jumped up and down and said ‘fuck fuck fuck’. My eyes probably got really wide for just a second and then I regained my too-cool-for-school demeanor and integrated the idea that if I’m not putting someone down, the occasional ‘fuck’ would be tolerated at home.
I’m guessing that for many kids, at the outset, fuck is understood as profanity but they aren’t sure why. The connection to sex is lost on them. Too often words that relate to sex and sexuality are connected to ideas of rudeness and all that is inappropriate. While it’s hard to see that coming to an end, I don’t mind trying. So what valuable conversations can we have with our kids about fuck?
Sure its important to teach our kids the ‘proper’ or scientific names for their genitals and for sexual activity but there are so many fabulous slang words too. If we only teach our kids vagina, penis and vaginal intercourse, and communicate that these are the only ‘appropriate’ words to be used, then how will we ever shift the thinking that ‘cunt’ or ‘dick’ or ‘fuck’ can be used in friendly (not oppressive or degrading) ways. Would it be a worthwhile challenge for all of us to use the word fuck only to describe sex? How do we help our kids understand that fuck has power (and different amounts of power) depending on how and when it is used?
When kids are really young, under 6 or 7, they sometimes pick up slang and try it out even if they don’t understand it. They might learn that words like ‘fuck’ ‘shit’ and ‘ass’ have power (but don’t know why) and start to lob them out into the world to see the effect.
Once my kid called me a douchebag. I can’t even remember if he was intending to insult me since the urge to laugh erased everything else in that moment. I asked him where he heard the word and whether he knew what it meant. With no answer, I proceeded to tell him what a douchebag is. And then suggested that it was a really weird word to call a person. And then encouraged him to only use words that he understood and that were not intended to injure or insult others.
Last week my other kid explained to me that ‘hell’ is a bad word. He’s also told me that ‘hate’ is a bad word. Perhaps I need a vocabulary refresh, but in my world neither of these words are ‘bad’. In fact, no words are bad. Like fuck, they hold power and helping kids understand and interpret the power is what gives them the ability to make sound choices.
Before you confront your child about certain words, figure out what you feel about them yourself. Keep in mind that body parts are not ‘bad words’ or ‘rude words’ so don’t frame conversations in that way. Determine how you feel about the ‘fuck’ alternatives. eg. Is ‘eff off’ okay? How about ‘frick’? Getting clear on what’s ok and not ok to you is important since this is part of a larger values lesson to share with your kids.
Some tips for talking about words….
- When kid are really young (under 6 or so), I think it’s perfectly okay to say ‘that’s a grown up word – not a kid word – so I don’t want you to say it anymore’. If kids ask why, you can explain that it’s because a lot of people think it is rude, especially rude for kids to say, and because the meaning is kind of complicated.
- Clarify that words are given power and don’t inherently have power. It’s the user of words, the tone and feelings behind the use of words that can hurt people or make a person seem rude. This is the case for fuck, but also for hate, and these days the increasingly popular word ‘bully’.
- Sticks and stones aren’t the only things that hurt. Help your kids know that feelings are often hurt by words. You can play a game (great for a car ride) to practice using words in ways that can be hurtful and not so hurtful. ‘I hate you’ can hurt. ‘I hate math’ can be pretty legitimate.
- There’s a time and a place for certain words. Captain Underpants (and my favorite character Professor Poopypants) may be funny but a reading doesn’t likely belong at Great Aunt Edna’s 90th birthday party. Some language among friends doesn’t have to be mean spirited or degrading, and still, we all need to exercise good judgement when deciding what words we use and when. Play the game again to help your kids get a handle on appropriate versus inappropriate times for using certain words. And remember that this isn’t a science so try to keep your cool if kids miss the mark.
- Often it’s actions that make you cool, not words. Kids use inappropriate language as a way to impress others. Talk to your kids about what actions and words are worthy of your respect. Together, develop examples of impressive actions, or clever word choices and encourage your kids to identify what garners their respect. Help them see that dropping an f-bomb is far from impressive.
Remember that different families have different values (and rules) around what is appropriate and what isn’t. Let your kids know that these differences are legitimate. And let them know that while the distinctions may have some arbitrariness to them, there are values that underly all of it.
Keep talking to your kids about this stuff without invoking shame or as a rebuke. Try to raise their awareness as to the subtleties of language rather than setting down firm and unalterable rules since it’s better to hear the words your children communicate with than find out they have a ‘home’ and ‘away’ vocabulary.
It seems I have a bit of a ‘home’ and ‘away’ vocabulary in that there are words that I use liberally that I try to keep from my kids ears. I’m going to attempt to change that. Fuck will be reserved for the bedroom (and used proudly) and I’ll find other ways to express my contempt for Fido. Care to join me?
Words are all we have, really. We have thoughts but thoughts are fluid.
then we assign a word to a thought and we’re stuck with that word for
that thought, so be careful with words. I like to think that the same
words that hurt can heal, it is a matter of how you pick them.
From George Carlin’s ‘The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television’
Have a listen to part of the explitive full and brilliant skit here.