Childrearing

Letting Your Child Swear Takes The Power Away From The Words

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His eyes widened. “Really?”

“Yep.”

Actually, I’d thought much darker things than that, and remember the profound relief I’d felt, like the first cool break after fever, when, at the age of fourteen, I’d begun to read Carl Jung’s memoir, Memories, Dreams, Reflections at my therapist’s urging. In it, he recounts a tale of a thought he would come up against the edge of having over and over but then stop, horrified and ashamed, at the brink. Eventually, one day, a major turning point for him in addressing his own shame, he allowed himself to have it: A giant turd crashing through the stained-glass windows of his church.

I could feel in my son the same humiliation burnishing his edges, filling with shame for wanting to say the worst swear word he knows in conjunction with his teacher’s name, whom he loves. I knew all too well from my own experience, though, that this urge to speak the unspeakable, to tarnish what one loves, is a human urge, and that to add shame to his burden now would be to crush something precious unfolding its newborn wings.

My husband, a former English teacher, and I, a writer, have had extensive conversations with our son about the power of words. He knows the consequences of using expletives aggressively, at someone else, or in any setting other than our home. He would no sooner say any of them at school or in the vicinity of his beloved teacher than harm his beloved kitty, Elvert. So I knew what I had to do next.

“If you want to say the actual word, not just F, out loud, you can, here in the car with me.”

“But won’t you be angry?” His brown eyes frowned out at me from beneath his blond bangs.

“Absolutely not—I’m giving you permission to get it out of your head.”

“I don’t know if I want you to hear,” he said, his pale cheeks flushing pink.

By now we’d pulled into our own driveway, and I parked the car.

“I can turn on the music,” I suggested.

“Can you turn it up loud?” he asked, brows tented together like the V of a distant bird on the horizon.

“Just tap me when you’ve said it.” I extended my arm near to him.

I cranked up the radio and within a few seconds I felt his tap on the back of my hand.

“Do you feel better?” I asked.

He smiled shyly, then nodded.

Later, as we were doing our usual evening cuddle he took my face between both hands. “I liked when you let me say the bad word,” he said, then closed his eyes. “My head is empty now.”

Of course I knew it was far from empty, but I hoped that by giving him permission to say the worst thing he could think, over and over, it would, like all things forbidden, lose its power.

(Photo: Shutterstock)

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