If shouting is the new spanking, what’s swearing? I ask this with a little trepidation, having been brought up in England, where some of our more colorful profanities were regularly used as punctuation marks. My childhood was spent in a somewhat repressed culture where affection was uneasily expressed. “Come here, you bloody dog,” for example, when shouted at your pet, was known to be a sign of overwhelming and undying love.
Bringing up children in America, I have learned to be more cautious in how I speak. But I am aware that my curse bar is much lower than my husband’s. My language is … not pure, to put it mildly. My children seem to relish my slips of the tongue, sensing that it gives them license to speak their own minds without censure. It’s hard to say “Do as I say, not as I do” to your children when it’s applied to speech.
So I felt tremendous solidarity with the following piece by Vinita K. Mendiratta on the subject of cursing. It’s one thing to hear your swear words come out of your own mouth; it’s quite another to hear them uttered by your 2-year-old.
If the “Mother Police” is patrolling my neighborhood, as Ayelet Waldman warns in her recent book, Bad Mother , I fear my own three kids might be on the force. Despite my conservative Indian upbringing, they have heard mommy utter some of the finest profanity the American language has to offer. My little vice is an unspoken secret between me and my children, since we live in a straight-laced, suburban community where many parents ban SpongeBob because he says “stupid,” but more importantly because my peace-loving-some would say saintly-husband highly disapproves. I don’t curse all the time, like in regular conversation, nor would I ever swear at my children. The bad words just pop out of my mouth during stressful moments, particularly when we’re rushing to get out of the house. One morning, I spilled my entire cup of coffee on the driver’s seat. The “S word” squeezed out. When I almost hit a runner while backing my SUV out the driveway, I thought that warranted the “D word.” Having to go back up the driveway three times to get a lunchbox, a homework assignment, and a sweatshirt, only to realize I’d grabbed the wrong sweatshirt, now that really made me want to scream the “F word. ” But exercising self-restraint, I reluctantly muttered the D word again, this time preceded by the guy who clearly wasn’t on my side that morning, God.
After an episode, as I like to think of them, I tell my children that Mommy said a bad word but shouldn’t have. I explain profusely why it was a very stressful, messy, dangerous moment that justified why a grown-up might accidentally swear, but if children ever used that word, it would sound really, really bad. And nice children never use bad words. They smirk at each other and nod in agreement. Thankfully, they’ve figured out this would not be good dinner conversation, as their dad is the kind of guy who only swears when strongly provoked, well out of their earshot, and insists I don’t resort to profanity even during our most contentious fights. This Anti-Cursing Even Though Mom Is a Closet Curser Plan was working great until my 2-year-old daughter started talking. We came home late from my brother’s one night, after a family birthday party turned sour because he and I had an argument. I was in quite a mood, and with my 6-and 8-year-old sons tucked away in bed and my sleeping toddler on my shoulder, I deemed it safe to tell my husband how I really felt about the evening. While I was raging, my daughter’s party favor, a metal Hello Kitty lunchbox, fell out of her hand onto the kitchen floor, abruptly ending my rant. “And why they had to give her this f-ckin’ box is beyond me!” I shouted as I stomped up the stairs and put my daughter to bed.
The next morning, my sleepy princess came downstairs clutching her blankies looking as innocent as any 2-year-old should look.
“Where’s my f-ckin’ box, Mommy?” she asked. Dropped the final “g” and all!! I almost fell to the floor. In all these years of hearing me swear while they were wide awake, my boys never once uttered a bad word, not even stupid (not in my presence at least). Yet here was my angelic baby girl, sucking her “ni-ni finger,” throwing around the F-bomb as casually as a sullen teenager hanging out with the wrong crowd. Then she said it again. I looked around the room frantically, thankful that her brothers, and more importantly, my husband, were not around. I handed her the lavender and pink lunchbox that had now become my enemy, and said, several times, in an exaggeratedly clear voice, “Here’s your Hel-lo Kit-ty lunchbox, sweetie. Hel-lo Kit-ty.”
But she knew. Knowing my little girl now, four years later, she definitely knew. She said the word again and again. Just out of the blue. For no reason at all, except just to say it.
My mind flew forward, imagining my daughter at the next family dinner with my in-laws, throwing her chicken on the floor, screaming, “Where’s my f-ckin’ box?!” At Thanksgiving, when my uncles sat around the cocktail table drinking scotch, I feared their laughter would screech to a halt when she bounded into the circle, asking Nana if he’d seen her “f-ckin’ box.” I couldn’t let this happen.
I didn’t grow up in a curse-throwing family, and even now, would never swear around my parents. On the rare occasion my dad shouted “Idiot” at another driver, my brother and I would fall into silent hysterics, amused at the way it sounded in his hard-edged Indian accent, while terrified because he’d said a Really Bad Word. My only exposure to familial swearing was in Hindi, by my aunt who hurled some horrific sounding words at my cousins. Cuthi was her favorite, which I didn’t recognize as the “B word” until many years later when my cousins and I sat laughing over too many margaritas.
Determined not to be the newest generation of maternal cursers, I tried to convert my daughter’s F to a T, and every time she said the dreaded word, I said, “Yes, honey, we’re going truckin’.” “Look at the truck.” “Truckin’ is fun.” She wasn’t interested in truckin’, though, and decided to play with her new word for a full day, blurting it out when I least expected. Finally, she must have tired of torturing me, and just stopped saying it. Does her mother swear anymore? Well, I try not to. I say the word in my head, I mutter it under my breath, and I come up with new frustration words like “focaccia.” My now-6-year-old daughter keeps me in line, primly reminding me to turn off an inappropriate song on the radio and commenting with obviously feigned disapproval when she hears a bad word, her expanded vocabulary lingering as a silent threat between us.
Vinita K. Mendiratta lives in Ridgewood, N.J. with her husband and three kids. She’s a “recovering lawyer” writing her first novel.
Promo photograph by Barbara Penoyar/Photodisc/Getty Image. Article photograph courtesy of Vinita K. Mediratta.