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Words your toddler can’t say on television

September 13, 2010

When AJ was a toddler, he had one of those cars you can climb in (if you are the size of a toddler) and drive it around with your feet, à la the Flintstones.

One day, when he was tooling around the driveway in his car, I was quizzing him on traffic signals.

“What do you do when there’s a red light.”

AJ came to a screeching halt. “Stop!”

“Good! What about green light?”

AJ’s feet started moving. “Go!”

“Great! Here’s a tough one: yellow light.”

AJ stopped, slapped himself in the forehead with the heel of his hand and shouted, “Jesus!”

Not that either of his parents had ever done such a thing (Mr. Spy).

That was about the point where we realized we needed to clean up our language (well, if truth be told, we realized it a while later, after we stopped laughing so hard). Not that we are big potty mouths or anything, but your children listen to more than you think. We didn’t want to hear some of those words coming out of our two-year-old’s mouth.

Over the years we’ve had a lot of conversations about swearing with AJ. And as he gets older, the rules change. When he was smaller, rules were global. But now that he’s older, we know that there are some words he’s going to want to say around his friends to be part of the crowd. We’ve tried to be more nuanced about our rules. Some words are okay with friends but not with grownups. Some words are okay with us, but not with, say, his grandmother. Other words are never okay. And if he asks, we will tell him why. Although, for the most part, I’ve told him that using those words is usually the result of an incredible lack of imagination. There are so many other good words available, to say things more precisely or elegantly. Those words should maybe be saved for situations that leave you completely without cranial resources. Such as when an anvil falls on your head or you stub your toe on the end of your 9-year-old’s bed for the 376th time. AJ, while interested in the meanings of the taboo words, has never been particularly interested in using them, at least not that I’ve ever heard.

On Saturday, AJ’s football team had its first loss of the season. AJ was disappointed. They played hard in the pouring rain and the game was close, but they just couldn’t catch a break. But the thing that bothered him most about the game was that the other team was swearing at them.

“What do you mean they were swearing at you?”

“We’d get into our line and they’d yell at us.”

“Well, AJ, that sometimes happens in football. They want to throw you off your guard.”

“I know, but they were using bad words.”

“What kind of bad words?”

AJ looked puzzled, unsure of what he was allowed to say. “They kept calling us the ‘B’ word.”

“Really? That’s not a nice word. Did you tell your coach? Or the ref?”


“What did you do?”

“I just ignored them.”

It’s hard to know for sure what happened here, but from what I’ve been able to piece together, it sounds like all the kids on the opposing team were doing it. Now certainly kids who are riled up can do dumb things away from the reach of adults and can egg each other on, but this was global enough to look as if it might have been supported by the other team’s coaching staff. I hope not. But if it was, I am completely appalled. If we don’t teach our kids good sportsmanship when they are 9 and 10, when are they going to learn it? In what context is it okay for a 9-year-old under adult supervision to call another 9-year-old a bitch?

Lisa Belkin’s post at Motherlode today suggests that our attitudes toward children and cursing are changing. I’m not sure mine’s getting any looser. Where do you stand on children and swear words?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. freshhell permalink
    September 13, 2010 2:39 pm

    Damn, I don’t know. I’ve never really had to face the issue with Dusty. She seems to have an inate sense of when certain words are appropriate and when they aren’t. We’ve encountered swear words in books, in movies, coming out of my mouth and I do try to limit the times I utter them but I’m not always 100% careful.

    Red, on the other hand, has embraced the full power of certain words and we’ve had long conversations about what words are appropriate to say in which situations and in front of certain people and what words are never appropriate to say. It mainly boils down to whether the word, if uttered, would be hurtful to someone who heard it.

    One recent example is the word “midget”. This has popped up in her rants lately and she’ll call her sister a stupid midget. We’ve discussed how this is not a bad word in itself but in certain situations, isn’t really nice. She has a friend from preschool who attends her school who is a little person (as is his mother and grandmother). If he overheard her saying “midget” – regardless of how she meant it – he might be hurt and he’s got enough to deal with without stupid things like this being said. Not to him necessarily but within earshot. I don’t think Red says these things outside of the house and in front of us because she knows we won’t punish her for it. But we do talk about the appropriateness of such utterances. It’s an ongoing process.

  2. September 13, 2010 3:14 pm

    We’ve always maintained that there are two sets of words. Those for use around grandma and those which must be limited to the playground. However, using words to hurt someone’s feelings on purpose would still not be allowed. I think a great way to bust the use of a word like “the b word” is to explain what it means. Worked to stop me from wanting to use “the f word” when I was young!

  3. September 13, 2010 3:38 pm

    I agree completely, Jill. The best way to demystify the words is to explain them. It’s AJ who’s uncomfortable saying them — I have not problem with telling him what they mean. He was dumbfounded by the explanation of “the b word.” “Why would anyone want to call anyone a female dog?” My point was that it isn’t so much the meaning of the words as the way they get said that is hurtful — and I pointed out that he knew they were mean words even without knowing what they meant. So the rule is “Don’t be mean.” That one’s a no brainer.

  4. freshhell permalink
    September 13, 2010 3:55 pm

    I don’t think I’m ready to explain the F word to Red yet. The “don’t be mean” rule is understood, though.

  5. September 14, 2010 9:29 am

    The “b” word was bitch, not bastard?

    We definitely try and divide things up – words that are okay at home, but not at school or out or at grandma’s.

  6. September 14, 2010 9:35 am

    @freshhell: telling her that the F word means “to make love” will zap all interest from the word

  7. readersguide permalink
    September 14, 2010 12:18 pm

    Good lord — what on earth were those coaches thinking? Ugh.

  8. freshhell permalink
    September 14, 2010 12:56 pm

    I was thinking bastard too.

  9. September 14, 2010 1:19 pm

    Hmm. I’m not sure, now. I’m not sure he knows bastard. He usually calls bitch the b word. But I could be wrong.

  10. September 14, 2010 6:00 pm

    I’m annoying to my kids when they use words I don’t like, often in the time-honored “you could think of a better word than that if you tried” way. But since I don’t curse much, pretty much not ever unless it’s a profanity like “damn,” they know I don’t like language like that and try not to use it around me.

  11. September 15, 2010 10:37 am

    If the B-word is the one that rhymes with witch, there’s something deeply and disturbingly sexist about the team members’ use of it to hassle their opponents. In any case, I think kids should be taught that sports are a place for, well, good sportsmanship. And in my mind, that goes for board games at home and chess at school as well as team sports.

    The issue of using “bad words” more generally is a somewhat different one, and we’re negotiating it at home. We don’t allow The Offspring to use them, but we occasionally do, and when we do, it really upsets him.

  12. Ron permalink
    September 16, 2010 9:05 pm

    Full disclosure: Jeanne’s favorite swear word is “Rats!”

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