Last night, my ten year-old and I watched an enriching documentary full of experts in the field, analysis of the data on the topic, and even some live scientific experiments to demonstrate the conclusions of the research. It's Netflix's "History of Swear Words." It's a series, and the first episode centered on the word "fuck," the second, on the word "shit." That's as far as we've gotten so far. Nicolas Cage is the host, in a tux, sitting in a library complete with a booze globe and leather chair. Linguistic experts, actors and comedians (Sarah Silverman, Isiah Whilock Jr., Nikki Glaser, Nick Offerman, London Hughes, Patti Harrison, +), and professional orators are interviewed.
The documentary has a light, fun, but also informative air to it. What I've found most enlightening so far is that the word "fuck" has been used since before the 1500s and has, of course, as all words do, evolved to mean many different things in that time. Currently, it can mean ALL things. The other thing I found interesting, and accurate to my experience, is that when you swear, you release adrenaline and it actually makes things hurt less, makes you better able to sustain discomfort and get through moments of stress. YEP.
So, when my kid picked this show to watch late at night after his sister was in bed, why did I OK it? Because, in my book, he's exposed to swear words on a regular basis- in songs, in all PG-13 and many PG movies, and regularly out of his loving mother's mouth. It's part of life. I don't find it helpful to pretend it doesn't exist. Also, as the documentary pointed out, these words have been around forever, aren't going anywhere, and can be very useful. I think him learning the proper way to apply them, and when not to use them, is a good idea. I'm guessing there will be some episodes that we will skip, or that we will pause a lot to put things in clear context- like with "bitch" and "pussy" and any other gendered words with a history of violence attached.
We've talked about using words carefully- as in how telling someone to fuck off in anger is very different than describing how great this fucking sandwich is. We also discussed how we all must learn to 'code switch' (change language, dialect, or accent from one moment/audience to the next- see many Black Americans skilled at code switching from A.A.V.E. to English that is familiar/comfortable to white people) and how swearing is not considered appropriate language at school and around grandparents and other more conservative people. Know your audience. This is a good lesson in general. Like, don't talk about the Nintendo game, Splatoon, for an hour with someone who doesn't play it and could give two shits. Know your audience.
Ahem. I digress.
We also often talk about how some words are seen as "foul" and "distasteful" while others are cruel and harmful, and what the difference is. We ask them to consider, does that cause pain? Are you using that to diminish someone's value? Are you being sensitive to other people's sensitivities about themselves? When he recently used the word "crazy" in reference to his sister, I told him why we're trying to remove ableist words like that from our vocabulary- not because it will hurt his sister, as he intended, but because it's hurtful to people with mental illness. "Stupid" is off the table, as well as "fat." This one hard, because we all HAVE fat, no one should be seen AS fat, but here we are in this ridiculous, fatphobic society, so we tell them that describing someone as fat is likely painful to them, so don't. We try really hard to teach them to describe people, when necessary, in ways that they themselves would find empowering. People first, insides first, not bodies, etc.
Has this parenting philosophy of being hard on cruel words but soft on swear words run amuck at any point? Yes, yes it has. Henry SANG the word "fuck" in a song in Kindergarten to make his friends laugh. That's when we started talkng about words at home versus words at school. Just this past year- in fourth grade at a new school- he told a kid to "SCOOT YOUR BUTT OVER" and the teacher took him to talk. He told her, "BUT MY PARENTS TALK LIKE THIS AT HOME ALL THE TIME." He came home, finger-wagging, telling me I have to change the way I talk at home. I asked him to consider what that would look like- the media we wouldn't allow ourselves to be exposed to, the limitations on our language in the comfort of our home and family, and I proposed the alternative, again, was that he was mindful of not using words that might be considered offensive when at school. You might be thinking, "but the word "butt?" Come on!" I thought that at first, also, but the email we got from the teacher made the point that there are kids in his class who have immigrated from all over the world and come from many, many different cultures. She is trying hard to be sensitive to all of their values. Fair enough. Stop saying "butt" at school. But at home, you're welcome to use it.
This isn't a fool-proof method, and it might totally come back to bite me in the....well, you get the idea, but it's what we're doing for now. Both my kids have a good mastery of language for their ages-they are highly verbal, and I think, in time, will understand how and when to apply all words responsibly and deliberately with respect and kindness at the forefront. Words are important and malleable and I find it exciting to study them. We've always exposed our kids to the full spectrum of what our language has to offer- we never talked baby-talk to them, we've read to and with them from the jump, so now that he's an old, old man of ten, it feels right to introduce him to this salty corner of language, so he can make tasty word stew.
We'll see how it goes. If he gets expelled from fifth grade and I have to home school, I'll have major fucking regrets.