Just like with any sensitive topic, I’d rather my child hear about swearing from me than pick it up on the street. At least that way I’ll know she’s learning from the best.
After the faint pink line appeared on my partner’s pregnancy test, probably the third or fourth thing I said while jumping up and down laughing and weeping for joy was “I’m going to have to stop saying ‘fuck’ so much!”
Throughout Charlie’s pregnancy, as we painted and cleaned and planned what our future would look like when the baby arrived, we kept reminding each other that we were really going to have to stop swearing. We’d go cold turkey by the time we started telling people about the pregnancy. OK, definitely by the third trimester. Well, at least before the baby was born. All right, the first words my daughter heard as she emerged into the world were me saying “Oh my fucking God, that’s our baby!” But fine, newborns don’t understand language yet anyway. As long as we managed to stop swearing by the time she started to speak, we should be fine.
I never figured that this would be easy. I am a writer, a reader, and a person who is deeply enamored of language in all its forms. I love big tongue-twisting words and short blunt words, flowery language and goofy puns. And I love curse words with all my heart. I’ve been a devoted and inventive swearer since sixth grade. I knew that cutting them out of my vocabulary would be challenging, and certainly wouldn’t happen overnight.
But I never really considered whether I should stop swearing when I became a parent; I just assumed I would, because the received societal wisdom is that’s what you do. Even though I pride myself pretty hard on being an iconoclastic parent, following my own beliefs rather than convention, I didn’t spend a lot of time contemplating whether radio editing myself was something I actually cared about and wanted to do. As it turned out, I hated it. Avoiding swearing felt restrictive and unnecessary, like Spanx for my vocabulary.
It’s not that I’m unwilling to make sacrifices for my child’s well-being. My daughter is allergic to milk and eggs, and I’ve gone from vegetarian to almost vegan so that we can keep having shared family meals. Anyone who knows me would tell you that I would a thousand times rather stop saying “shit” than stop eating yogurt. But actually, it’s fine. I value eating as a communal activity, allowing my daughter to try things off my plate and develop an adventurous palate, more than I value butter. (Although I really, REALLY value butter.) But when I try to apply this same logic to swearing, I come up against a brick wall.
What values am I modeling for my daughter by not using swear words around her? The value of keeping my language PG? That’s not a value I have, or one I care to pass along. I don’t believe that it’s morally wrong or even particularly rude to say “fuck” or “hell” or “assballs” or whatever else pops out of my mouth when I stub my toe.
I know part of the rationale for not swearing in front of children is that they aren’t yet capable of distinguishing between inappropriate and appropriate times to use those words. Still, I don’t see the point in pretending certain words don’t exist until my daughter is old enough to develop social skills and self-control—I mean, shit, I’m 28 and I still don’t have those things. Besides, I have no intention of preventing her from reading books, listening to music, or watching movies that include strong language. Just like with any sensitive topic, I’d rather my child hear about swearing from me than pick it up on the street. At least that way I’ll know she’s learning from the best.
I do have values around language that I care deeply about modeling for my child; they just don’t involve swearing. I want her to learn that speech is a powerful tool and should be used responsibly, so I want to set an example of avoiding insulting or oppressive words. It’s fine with me if my daughter says “fuck,” but I never want her to call anyone “stupid” or “ugly” or use slurs that wound marginalized groups of people. I want to set an example that language is expansive and creative and fun and important, and that she can use it any way she wants, except to hurt people.
Swearing can express emotion and even relieve pain (although its analgesic effects are lessened in people who swear more frequently, so I’m pretty much fucked). It can also be a way of expressing friendship and solidarity, as we’re more likely to swear around people we know well. And curse words, especially “fuck,” are linguistically complex and fascinating as few other words in the English language are. There are plenty of good reasons to swear, and the only reason I can think of not to is that my grandmother would disapprove. And if that were my driving force in life…well, my hair would look really goddamn different, for starters.
I want to be a role model for my daughter of someone who lives according to her values, regardless of whether they line up with social convention. So I’m not going to stop swearing in front of her. Instead, I’m going to stop pretending that I’m considering it. Because this is the message I want my daughter to receive every day of your life: As long as you’re not hurting anyone, you should live and behave in whatever way feels right to you. And if anyone gives you grief about it? Well, in our house, we say “Fuck a bunch of that.”
Lindsay King-Miller is a queer femme who does not have an indoor voice. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Magazine, Cosmopolitan.com, Buzzfeed, The Hairpin, and numerous other publications. She lives in Denver with her partner, a really cute baby, and two very spoiled cats. She is the author of Ask A Queer Chick (Plume, 2016).