Swearing is not a four letter word

Sarah Fitz-Claridge

From the archives: The original post was posted on 3rd November, 1998

We know some people who are having a debate about swearing.

Dad thinks Mum has a bad theory about swearing. Specifically, he thinks she swears too much. Their son has started swearing (under 5 years old). Dad feels that Mum should take some responsibility for this as it is due to her swearing that Son has picked this up (Mum concurs that this theory is probably true – i.e., he has picked it up from her). Dad feels Son is not getting a good spectrum of theories about swearing.

The theory Son has had from Mum is that swear words often offend people. Mum’s theory is, she swears in front of people who don’t care. She doesn’t swear for emphasis, to get a rise, rebel, shock, etc., in front of people likely to be offended. Mum and Son have extensively enumerated the people in their life and their estimated swearing threshold. (Note, though, that one can sometimes be mistaken about who will be offended. I myself now almost never swear, after such an incident. And I was very surprised to discover that that particular person disliked hearing swearing.)

Dad’s theory is that children should not swear, that swearing is an adult realm. He doesn’t want to coerce their son about this at all however. He would like Mum to re-evaluate her theories about swearing, and maybe cut down her swearing so as not to model this behaviour for son. He feels he needs to defend Son against Mum’s invalid theory of swearing.

Dad feels that although it doesn’t pay to be too precious about childhood, childhood is a magical time. He believes swearing has no value, adds nothing to Son’s life. Or, for that matter, to Mum’s life (more on that later). In light of these theories about childhood, he criticises Mum’s even introducing swearing to Son by swearing in front of Son.

Dad feels parents are responsible for modelling appropriate behaviour for their kids. He is concerned that Son will experience negative repercussions if Son swears inappropriately. He is personally affronted by Son’s swearing as well. He doesn’t blame Son for swearing nor does he chastise Son. He takes it up with Mum mostly though he has given Son some of his theories.

Mum feels she is modelling lots of things, not just words. She models not swearing in post offices, at grandparents’ house, etc. She discusses these theories with Son. She feels that no matter how much or how little she swears, Son will be exposed to swearing sooner or later, and as in all things Son will make up his own mind. She wonders whether Dad might be attributing too much influence to her.

Dad feels Son, at his age, doesn’t have the gamut of experience or the reasoning power necessary to deal with the nuances of swearing. He feels Son does not understand the power of swearing.

Dad has a theory that swear words have inherent, loaded social meaning and that Son possibly will not be able to take that into account. Mum has a theory that swear words’ meaning is context dependent and that learning about those types of contexts and whether it matters to one or not is what much of life is all about.

Mum, full-time parent, estimates that Son swears maybe a few times a week. He has never sworn in front of someone who has had a bad reaction. She believes he seems to understand and agree with her theory about appropriate and inappropriate swearing. She’s open to the fact that he may make a misjudgement at some point, but it hasn’t happened yet to her knowledge.

Specifically the episodes of Son’s swearing which have concerned Dad include: Son said “Let’s put this sh*t into this bag” to another adult visitor (who was surprised since Son is a kid, but is an individual who Mum would swear in front of, and who was open to Mum’s theory); and Son muttered “F*cking sh*t” to himself but within Dad’s hearing range.

Other, related issues have arisen out of this. Dad has theories about swearing: that swearing is a lesser way to express oneself (a stop-gap measure, a sign of lack of vocabulary, or lack of will-power to be more eloquent); that Mum is attached to swearing and has severe entrenched theories about it herself. This is because Mum feels it would be self-coercion for her to stop swearing – she doesn’t want to stop. She’s happy with her theory of swearing. Dad feels she is vehemently defensive and that this indicates an underlying entrenchment.

This family recognises that underneath of issues which “push buttons” usually lie a gold mine of entrenched theories. With that in mind, Dad believes a person who swears, but who is a seeking person on a journey of self-discovery, should probably ask herself some questions.

Questions like:
WHY do I swear? What deeper reason?
What do I gain by swearing?
Does it enhance my life purpose?

Dad theorises that swearing not only does not contribute to living life to the fullest, etc, but that it detracts from a pursuit of self-improvement/realisation/enlightenment. He believes it is a form of behaviour that brings no one happiness.

Mum’s theory is that she is not hugely attached to swearing. Reasons she has come up with so far why she swears are: she feels it is an acceptable way to express herself in certain contexts; for emphasis; maybe because she cultivates a certain image/personality trait with it (possibly, she thinks, to counteract her pure and innocent look which often leads people to certain assumptions about her); because her subculture swears.

Both Mum and Dad are open to the fact that they may have bad theories about swearing, its place in their lives, and its place in Son’s life.

What do people think?

This family would like to hear theories not only with respect to Son, but also with respect to broader issues of swearing in the second half of this post.

There are several reasons given here for Dad’s contention that Mum should stop swearing. Let’s look at them.

First, there is the idea that it is inappropriate behaviour.

I’d like to ask why? In what way? I agree that there are contexts where swearing would be inappropriate, but not that it is inappropriate in allcontexts, as Dad contends.

Secondly, there is the idea that swearing adds nothing to Mum’s life.

It seems that Mum disagrees with this, or she wouldn’t swear. Perhaps Dad is unable to see what it adds to Mum’s life, because he does not experience swearing in the positive way Mum does. At any rate, in general one should avoid making pronouncements about the internal states one’s loved ones, because doing so risks setting up coercive conflicts. To the extent that Mum defers to Dad’s view of Mum’s personal experience of swearing, she will be setting up a coercive conflict in her own mind.

Thirdly, there is the idea that in swearing in front of Son, Mum is risking teaching Son to swear but failing to teach him when to avoid swearing. Dad thinks that this risks Son being coerced by other affronted individuals.

Mum answers that on the contrary, she is giving him access to her deep theories about when to swear and when to avoid swearing, and that he appears to have grasped these theories and that therefore, he won’t be coerced because he won’t swear in inappropriate contexts.

I think this is likely to be true. In my experience, children do seem to pick up such theories about when not to swear whether one tells them one’s theories about it or not. Sometimes even if the parent hopes that their children will swear in an “inappropriate” context, such as in front of the Grandparents, they just won’t. However, if Dad thinks that this danger exists, he can tell the child about it, can’t he? He can share his theory that it is sensible to avoid swearing in situations X, Y, and Z because it could cause A, B, C reactions, that Son might not prefer. Perhaps in this case it might be safer if Mum conveys these ideas rather than Dad, since she is the one with the deep theories about it, and, I’d guess, would be more likely to address Son’s problem-situation than would Dad’s blanket theory.

Dad also thinks that swearing is a lesser way to express oneself and that it is a sign of lack of vocabulary.

Can the way to increase one’s vocabulary be to cut down the number of words one can use, by cutting out swear words then, can it?! In general, when parents are worried that their children’s interests or vocabularies or whatever are too narrow, the answer must be to ensure that the children have access to a greater diversity of whatever it is, not to do the conventional thing of banning whatever it is, or limiting it, or otherwise cutting down the child’s options. If Dad is worried that Son may lack a good vocabulary Dad should make more effort to talk to Son, thereby giving Son access to his rich linguistic theories, through lots of wonderful words used in context.

However, Dad should be careful not to make this an educational agenda, because that is likely to be coercive. If there is a word Dad thinks Son might like to know, he should of course mention it, but note that the criterion should be that he thinks that Son would himself like to know rather than that Dad thinks Son ought to know.

It is a grave mistake for Mum and Dad to try to find the truth about swearing through discussing who is irrational. That won’t help at all. The fact is, one can’t tell. What one can say, though, is that it is wrong for Dad to keep repeating the same arguments to Mum in attempts to get her to change. He should assume that there is something in swearing that he can’t himself see, rather than assuming that Mum’s swearing reflects irrationality.

Mum should ask herself whether she does in fact like swearing or whether she is in conflict about it. If the former, then there is no reason whatever to adopt this theory that her swearing reflects irrationality. If the latter – if, when she swears, part of her is cringing and wanting not to swear, then that does sound like coercive conflict. But if so, the solution to the problem is unlikely to lie in thinking on this meta level about how irrational this is.

Dad believes that “a person who swears, but who is a seeking person on a journey of self-discovery, should probably ask herself some questions”:

WHY do I swear? What deeper reason?
What do I gain by swearing?
Does it enhance my life purpose?

The mere fact that one can’t articulate answers to these questions does not mean that there are no reasons, or that one should therefore  stop swearing. Dad should remember that most of a person’s knowledge and mostthinking and most of their reasons are unconscious or inexplicit rather than conscious and explicit.

Since Dad is into having people ask themselves questions, I have some Dad might like to ask himself:

  • Why does he feel affronted by swearing?
  • Does he think that feeling affronted by swearing is a good thing?
  • Does he want Son to stop feeling fine when other people swear and to start feeling affronted like Dad does?
  • Why does he want other people who are perfectly happy swearing to stop using swear words?
  • What business of his is it if someone else uses such language?
  • Could it be that there is something that he is missing, given that other people do find swearing useful and good in their own lives?

Feeling affronted, offended, insulted, upset, is a bad state of mind to be in. TCS is about bringing children up in such a way that they are free of such coercive states of mind. Feeling affronted by swearing is bad for Dad! It is not something he should want to pass on to his child.

Dad theorises that swearing not only does not contribute to living life to the fullest, etc, but that it detracts from a pursuit of self-improvement/realisation/enlightenment. He believes it is a form of behaviour that brings no one happiness.

How does Dad explain the fact that many people find this theory absurd? Swearing certainly seems to me to bring me happiness, and my having started to swear after a childhood in which swearing would have resulted in either physical violence or at least deep guilt-inducing disappointment on the part of my parents, certainly seems to me to have been an important step in my personal growth and self-improvement. Is Dad saying that I am mistaken about that?

Mum’s theory is that she is not hugely attached to swearing. Reasons she’s come up with so far why she swears are: she feels it is an acceptable way to express herself in certain contexts; for emphasis; maybe because she cultivates a certain image/personality trait with it (possibly, she thinks, to counteract her pure and innocent look which often leads people to certain assumptions about her); because her subculture swears.

Makes sense to me.

Both Mum and Dad are open to the fact that they may have bad theories about swearing, its place in their lives, and its place in Son’s life.

What do people think?

I think that Dad should beware of trying to channel other people (particularly his children) into his vision of how they should be.

And I think that Mum and Son may embrace and explore swearing until their swearing offends someone they want not to offend, at which point they might well change their policy, as I myself did.

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 1998, ‘Swearing is not a four-letter word’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/swearing-is-not-a-four-letter-word/