and debate cursing in front of children.
A few years ago, sitting down after dinner, my then five-year-old counted the number of people around the table (five) then counted the number of muffins on the plate in the centre of the table (four). “Ah, fuck,” she said under her breath, shaking her head miserably.
My husband and I nearly fell off our chairs. It’s not a word either of us had ever heard the kids say, and it’s not one we use in front of them. Ever. Hearing the unexpected expletive come out of her mouth, it was impossible to keep a straight face. I buried my head in my hands and faked a coughing fit to cover up, wondering if I should say something to her. Eventually, on the assumption that drawing attention to it would make swearing all the more appealing, I decided to say nothing.
Though I’m very fond of a good expletive, I still don’t curse in front of the kids. To me, cursing is therapeutic, satisfying, pleasing, even necessary at times. It’s something I do under my breath on a bad day and it makes me feel better. It’s something I do out loud (but not too loud — the kids are asleep upstairs) when I’m ranting to my husband about something I saw on Twitter. It’s something I do when I hurt myself and, in fact, research from Keele University shows that cursing can help reduce pain; though I suspect muttering quietly so the kids can’t hear takes some of the good out of it.
It’s not just solo-swearing that appeals — a well-placed “fuck off” can show just the right amount of surprise/awe/shock when a friend is regaling me with a story, and swearing can even be a form of bonding — you know you’ve gelled with the mothers from the school when you can go for a drinks and curse at will, school-gate and daytime decorum left well and truly behind.
However, it has never been something I do loosely; swear words are for emphasis and meaning, and they lose that emphasis and meaning when they’re overused. To me, cursing should have purpose, not pepper every conversation to the point that the curser doesn’t even realise it’s happening any more.
That’s what I want for my children: To grow into adults who can curse occasionally and purposefully, as needed. They don’t need to hear me do it to get there, they’ll find their own way. If I swear in front of them, I fear (perhaps unjustly, but I’m not willing to risk it) that they’ll swear too quickly and easily, taking all the good out of it.
Maybe they’ve already started, quietly out of earshot. I still remember my first foray into bad language when I was about eight or nine. I was sitting with my friend Sarah in my bedroom in Carrigaline, each of us daring the other to say it, then in unison we shouted “Shit!” (The resulting euphoria was short-lived as, in our excitement, the volume went up, and my mother caught us.)
Of course, wanting my children to grow up with a proper appreciation of occasional swearing isn’t the only reason I don’t curse in front of them, there’s a societal expectation that kids don’t curse and, rightly or wrongly, I’m not about to put my head above the parapet and send my kids into school talking about their fucking homework and their bastard lunches. (“Cheese again? For fuck’s sake!”)
Also, I don’t want my kids to curse in front of other parents. A word that sounds funny from the mouth of a five-year-old doesn’t have the same effect when the child is eight or 10 and sitting at someone else’s dinner-table.
Right now, they know that cursing is exceptional, not commonplace. On the very rare occasion they hear a swear-word, it’s followed by pretend you didn’t hear that. Of course, the underlying message is this: It’s OK to curse if you’re a grown-up and you’ve just stood on Lego again, but not if you’re five and worried about the number of muffins.
Here’s my question for people who don’t curse in front of their kids. Why would you decide to give up one of life’s great pleasures, just when you need it the most?
Here’s the thing about the word “fuck”. It’s unambiguous. It means, this is serious. It means if you do that again, I’m going to go ballistic. As Billy Connolly pointed out, no one ever wrote “fuck off, he hinted”.
That’s why I curse at my kids. Not only do we curse in front of the kids in our house, we curse AT THEM, regularly, to make sure we make ourselves clear.
Ours kids are five and three. I shout “ah for fuck’s sake” at least once a day, usually around 6.30pm, when I turn my back for two minutes and they thrash the front room. Everyone’s a winner with “ah for fuck’s sake”. The kids get the message that room-thrashing is off the menu for another day; I get to leave off some steam, which is vital now that slapping is a no-no.
I’ve tried “sounds like” curses but they don’t work at all. Saying feck instead of fuck is like pointing a water pistol at a battleship. You’re not fooling anyone, particularly the kids, who just find it funny. It reminds me of my grandmother, who used to say “Jaysu Chrust” when she was cross, because she was afraid of committing a venial sin. (Or was that upgraded to a mortal? It always seemed to depend on who you asked.) Anyway, if you’re not going to bother with the full fuck, I wouldn’t bother at all. Another important reason here is transparency. Irish people curse all the time and we’re really good at it. Trying to hide this from your kids is a terrible way to prepare them for adult life. We’re wondering if we should tell them about oral sex at the age of 10, while still saying feck if they do something wrong.
Kids pick up on these things, and guess what, this makes them curse even more. I grew up in 1970s Ireland, when cursing in front of children was as bad as joining the RUC. This didn’t stop us kids from cursing in front of ourselves. One of my earliest memories is standing in front of a group of boys in Kinsale saying “fuck, fuck, fuck” a hundred times, until somebody wet their pants. It might have been me, come to think of it.
I don’t know why we think cursing is a bad thing. (“Fucking” is often just a word Irish people use in place of “very”.) There is definitely a class element in all this, a notion that middle-class people don’t curse. Anyone who thinks this has obviously never been to rugby match.
But mainly, I blame the puritanical Americans. Your average Yank reckons that saying “dammit” will put her on a highway to hell. (Mind you, they’re very comfortable talking about their fannies in public, but that’s another day’s work.) We seem to have taken on this American mindset. It’s probably got something to do with reading all their parenting books and watching too much Dr Phil. Whatever it is, it’s totally unsuitable for life in Ireland.
As I said earlier, Irish people are incredibly good at cursing. We’d be the best in the world if it wasn’t for the fucking Scots. There is an honesty in our cursing that allows people to see what we’re really thinking. The upshot is we think non-cursers have something to hide, that they can’t be trusted. In short, people who can’t curse properly are at a disadvantage in Irish life. Why would you want to impose that on your kids?