The Power of Swear Words

Griffin comes running into the kitchen. “Mom! Mom! AJ said a swear word!”

“Really? Which one?” I ask, trying to determine how serious the offense is.

He pauses, his eyes two large pools of fear and excitement. “Do you want me to say it?” he whispers.

I open my mouth to say, “No, of course I don’t! Just give me a hint.” But then I have one of those moments – where you realize some long and winding, monumental life truth in a split second.

And it went a little something like this:

Why couldn’t he say the word? I mean, he wasn’t swearing. Not technically. He was informing me on the details of an incident. So why did my heart constrict with fear at the idea that he might ACTUALLY say the word after I asked him to BASICALLY say the word?

Which led to the next question: why do words hold so much power? I know in an abstract way they do in fact, hold power. Telling someone they’re ugly versus pretty. Describing a beautiful poem. And of course, we all know those people who constantly swear. One such man literally gave me a headache after he used the “F” word as an adjective before every noun.

But that’s not a single word. That’s words combined together to create messages. So if Griffin says this one word to me in this situation, what is the word’s power?

I decided: Only what I give it.

And that’s the key, I thought. Because if I make him FEAR words, instead of RESPECT them, then what am I teaching him? Life is all about choices and I want my kids to choose not to swear because they have better ways to communicate, not because they’re afraid I’ll yell at them.

Is that why teenagers love to swear? Because they’ve been so afraid to speak these words, so trained to fear them, that they find this verbal rebellion empowering?

It reminded me of a friendly argument I had with someone a few years ago. I yelled out something with a substitute swear word – I think my exact wording was “freaking A,” directed toward a driver that had cut me off so abruptly, I almost crashed.

This friend gave me a hard time for “swearing.” I corrected him that this was not swearing and though he agreed I wasn’t using the really harsh words, it was still bad language. So I asked him, what SHOULD I say? What would be okay to yell out in that situation?

He thought about it before finally coming up with his answer. “Nothing.”

“Nothing?” I asked. “You think, when I’m upset, I should say nothing?”

“Yes,” he said, explaining that if you’re yelling out an actual swear word or a substitute one, you’re still being vulgar and rude.

“So I should never express any negative emotion ever?” I asked.

He responded with some version of the “if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all” cliche.

Which — in general — I agree with. But I happen to be the “fallible” variety of human and so, what I think is best case scenario and what I live day-to-day, are two entirely different things.

Then I thought of all the  moms I know who are so vigilant about keeping their children’s mouths clean. One such mom had a swear jar and it was full of coins.

I was smug when I saw it, thinking “Wow, that jar is really full! Her kids must have some mouths on them.” Thinking, “I’m so glad I never have that problem with MY kids.”

Until I found out her “swear” words included “stupid,” “butt” and “shut-up.” I don’t even stop my kids from saying “crap” most days.

At the time, the discovery sent me into a shame-spiral wherein I questioned every parenting decision I’d ever made. I seriously, seriously considered joining the “butt is a bad word” bandwagon.

But I’m a pick-your-battles kind of parent and I spend enough time ragging on my kids for not sharing their toys, making messes, or not eating properly. (“It doesn’t matter that Mommy’s not eating her carrots, you still have to eat YOURS.”)

I wondered if this mom had already mastered all that stuff and cleaning up her kids’ language was just the last thing on her to-do list before they were perfectly polished, ready for the shelves.

Or, more likely, she just has way more energy than I do.

I think this mom is a great mom and her swear jar is a great idea. For her.

But for me, here, down in the dirt, in the trenches of life — this living stuff is hard work. And sometimes you just have to scream about it. The idea of never saying anything negative is so . . . suffocating. Silencing.

I don’t want to silence or suffocate my children.

All these thoughts flew through my mind in a split second. I met Griffin’s eye and said, “Yes. Go ahead and say it.”

And he did. And it was kind of anti-climactic after the burst of inspiration that preceded it.

I’m HOPING he learned that it’s not the WORD that holds power, but the intention behind it.

I want to teach my children to be civilized, respectful members of society. I want to teach them to reach deep into our language when expressing themselves, to treat words like crayons, coloring their interactions with bright and vibrant expressions.

I want to tell them: “Swear words are shortcuts of communication – ugly, dirty shortcuts. Let’s take the long way, the scenic route. But still – words are just words. Don’t be afraid of them. There will be times in your life when nothing says it like the ‘F’ word.

…Once you’re an adult and out of this house, of course.”