I have a relaxed attitude to swearing. Should I care if my children use swear words? | Isabelle Oderberg

“Should I care if my children use swear words?”

My three-year-old is a genius. Just the other day, she created her first portmanteau. You can imagine our pride, her parents, both writers, when she called her brother a “basthole”, giggling as she created a word more powerful than its constituent contributors; arsehole and bastard.

It wasn’t until I was pregnant that my husband and I had our first conversation about swearing and kids. I asked, with great trepidation, whether we were going to attempt to stop swearing in front of the kids. He laughed, assuring me that it was an absolute impossibility – that I, in particular, would not be able to stop in any scenario. In fact, there is a large pillow in my living room that says, “I tried to stop swearing but I cunt”, bought for me by my mother.

Ultimately there were two primary contributors to my laissez-faire attitude to “foul” language. The first was my very liberal (small L) parents (when it came to swearing and a host of other things) and the other was working in newsrooms from the age of 16. They might now be slightly more genteel than when I started, but early on in my career, you weren’t really part of the gang unless you could down 15 beers in a night, chain-smoke without skipping a beat and swear more colourfully than a Ken Done painting. Especially in the business round.

These two influences definitely combined to give me the potty mouth I have now and my realisation that stopping would be nigh on impossible. Where I was in situations where I couldn’t openly swear, I fell back on the Cantonese swear words I heard growing up in Hong Kong that allowed me to adequately acquit frustration (“diu lei” and “chi sin” among them). Ultimately, I decided that with my children, I would deploy the tactic my own mother took with me.

“We have inside-the-house words and out-of-the-house words,” she said, trying to keep a straight face.

There are two reasons reason I recycled this strategy, handed down through the generations, rather than banning swearing outright. The first is the irrefutable, scientifically proved fact that a little kid swearing is uproariously hilarious. Possibly because it’s so rare that we hear one of those tiny little baby pouts wrapped around words like “fuck” or “bugger”.

The second is to protect my kids, because I’m well aware that not everyone is as relaxed with language as me.

But come on guys, swearing is something kids can’t avoid. It’s on TV. It’s in the street. It’s at school. It’s on signage. It’s on half of my t-shirts. It’s everywhere. Moreover, there are things that concern me far more than swearing.

Violence. Guns. Drugs. Tattoos (yes I am a dirty, rotten hypocrite, given I’m covered in them).

Swearing is just words. With the exception of words used to demean or bully people on the basis of ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or any other aspect of their identity or gender – which are explicitly banned in our family with a full and detailed explanation as to why – these are just words. Muttering the word “shit” when I drop something on my toe is not going to signal the end the world. There are a raft of things that are far more damaging to my babies.

So if that’s my view, why do I care? Why do I restrict swearing to the house or the car? Only because others – namely other parents and perhaps teachers – don’t have the same relaxed attitude to swearing as I do. Maybe they have yet to catch up. Maybe they view it differently. Maybe they see it as an issue of respect.

But what would they know? Bastholes.

Isabelle Oderberg is a journalist. Her book Hard to Bear will be released in April by Ultimo

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