Picture this. An angelic almost-three-year-old, playing with his duplo fire engine in the garden on a sunny autumn morning.
He’s muttering something like “better put out the fire!”, something else about a hose and Fireman Sam. And then louder than anything else… “I’m not fucking around!”
My husband and I stop what we’re doing. Quickly check no one is shooting us a horrified glare over the top of the wall that separates our garden from the public walkway that runs alongside our house. Pardon?
He smiles angelically. “Put out the fire, Mum.”
Even before he turned three, there were at least four or five times I had to accept the fact my son had unavoidably dropped an f- or s-bomb.
A dozen or so others, I’d been able to tell myself that he said “ship!” or “far!” But there are limits even to deliberate ignorance.
I started to curse myself for having revelled in compliments about his advanced speech. How could I explain to him that I wanted him to talk a lot, but not like… that?
There seemed to be a few ways to deal with it. I tried them all, with mixed success.
In the bad habit of many mothers, I first assumed it was my fault. Had my own cursing armed him with this salty vocabulary?
I ran a quick stocktake. I didn’t swear a lot… except when I was stressed (which was quite a lot of the time when I was pregnant and dealing with an existing small person) or tired (see above).
But I never swore at him, it was usually under my breath, and I never really thought he was paying that much attention, anyway. He didn’t listen to anything else I said, why would he soak up the obscenities?
Still, I made an effort to “gosh” and “my goodness” my way through life a little more. It didn’t make a difference.
I turned to a couple of friends for advice. One asked why I was even worrying about it. “They’re just words. What’s the worst that can happen?”
(Although it should be noted that she encouraged her kids, aged three and four to paint their own bedroom walls as self-expression.)
I could see where she was coming from. He was still at the stage where there was no real intent behind the words. He didn’t know why shouting “shit” would be any different to shouting “jelly” – or that people might be offended. Or even probably what being offended was.
Of all the weird social concepts I’ve struggled to explain to kids, the idea that some words are “bad” is one of the more difficult ones for me. How do you explain that when you put those letters in that order, someone might take offence – but say them backwards, for example, and it’s fine?
Surely it was the intent of the word that mattered. Swearing happily had to be better than whinging in the politest terms.
But then again, I didn’t want to set him up for trouble. “My mum doesn’t mind” was not going to fly at school.
Don’t do this.
The first time he dropped something and said “shit!”, I laughed. A lot. It was a very bad idea.
I quickly realised my mistake and tried to hide it but he noticed and did it again. And again.
Then, a few months later, he walked into the kitchen and said: “This is a fucking mess”.
I dropped what I was doing, shrieked with laughter, and demanded: “What?”
It was obviously the reaction he was after because he did the same thing about an hour later.
This set me back a good six months in my anti-swearing quest.
Lots of parenting books will tell you this is the best tactic. Ignore the behaviour you don’t want, praise what you do.
I can understand the theory but my kids just tend to get louder when they feel they’re being ignored. Once my son knew that these words could get a response, any time it failed, he’d just try again. And again.
I studiously ignored a happy “shit, shit, shit, shit” sung to the tune of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star in the supermarket. But soon it was replaced by: “Mum. Mum! Muummm…”
People around me were starting to give me the look. I gave him my undivided attention. “Yes, darling?”
“I said SHIT!”
I liked the idea of arguing that there are so many great words in our language, there had to be a better one than a swear word.
But as time went on, he just picked up a broader range of words that his sixth sense told him would get a reaction.
I gave up when, suggesting he might try something else, he replied: “What, like willy? Where’s your willy, Mum?”
It turned out the best way to deal with the swearing was just to wait it out. As he’s grown up, he’s developed new and increasingly innovative ways to get a rise out of me, no swearing (or, often even speaking) required.
Now I’ve seen research showing people who swear a lot are more intelligent and I wonder if I should have actively encouraged it from the start. Sometimes his dad and I would have felt a lot better if we’d just joined in.
Susan’s novel, Mummy Needs A Break is out now in EBook.