Care and Feeding

Oh Shoot, Our Freaking 3-Year-Old Has Started Swearing

Maybe it’s because we cuss all the $%*!# time.

Photo illustration: A young girl with braided pigtails shouts. A speech bubble with suggested swear words has been added to the image.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I cuss a lot, as does my husband. It’s the norm in our respective industries and communities. I’d say we were “heavier users” of profanity. I feel words only have power if you choose to give them power. We live in the buckle of the Bible Belt. My older son was always allowed to use curse words. It was never an issue. He’s got social and generalized anxiety so we flew under the radar. Until now: He’s 9, going into fourth grade, and he cusses at home. Not excessively but enough that our 3-year-old is playing repeat. I’m worried about what she’ll say in her new pre-K class next year. I’m feeling a little wobbly navigating a “pottymouth” who doesn’t bother me but will likely offend others.

—Sorry, They’re With Me

Dear STWM,

As vibrant and delicious as some of our oldest Anglo-Saxon swears are, and as satisfying as it is to deploy them at moments of great emotion, we have as a society decided they are one of the exclusive perks of adulthood (or goth teenagehood.) For better or for worse, when the vast majority of people hear a child swear, it seems particularly crass and unpleasant and will, fairly or not, make them think less of the child’s parenting and more likely to encourage their own child to play with someone else. That’s just how things are. Your 3-year-old is surely a delightful person, and it’s unfortunate that her innocent parroting will give people the wrong impression. But this is what happens when you live in a society: Other people have “given power” to those words, and the genie cannot be put back in the lamp.

Author Nicole Cliffe
Nicole Cliffe Photo illustration by Slate

Sometimes rules change! Your kids will learn this as time goes on. It needs to start with you and your husband: Stop swearing around the kids. Your son is 9, old enough to be told that swearing isn’t allowed at school (it isn’t!) and that he needs to be a good example for his little sister, as do you, so the three of you will be working together to eliminate those words from your vocabulary. Swear jars! Rewards for weeks without slip-ups! As for your 3-year-old, your best option is to simply give her nothing offensive to parrot. The words will fall out of her rotation when they cease to get attention and she stops hearing them come out of her family’s mouth.

Then, when they are in their teens, feel free to let ’er rip. The first time I heard the F-word it was from my mother during an Expos-Pirates game (Orlando Merced had just hit a grand slam) and I learned quickly that these words, like the shaker of MSG I keep on my kitchen counter, are best enjoyed with a light hand at exactly the right moment.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and his ex are on fairly good terms, and we celebrate many holidays and special occasions together so that my stepdaughter can be with all of her parents and siblings on those days. We also sit together at her games, concerts, etc.

My stepdaughter’s stepfather—her mother’s husband—is creepy. I’ve watched for years as he treats her (slightly) older cousins in inappropriate (flirty?) ways. Nothing obscene, just inappropriate. Hugs that last too long, carrying post-pubescent girls on his shoulders, rubbing a shoulder in a way that just doesn’t feel right to me. This is all in front of family.

On Wednesday, I saw him poke his 12-year-old niece in the bellybutton a couple of times. I don’t believe that any 12-year-old wants her uncle to touch her bare belly. Again, this was in front of several other adults, including the girl’s mom. We’ve heard other adults say that his conduct makes them uncomfortable as well.

Ending all contact isn’t possible because my stepdaughter spends half of her time at her mom’s. If we said that we would never again do anything together, it would hurt my stepdaughter. I worry that she would feel like she had to hide things from us. It would also break down communication between my husband and his ex-wife. Where do we go from here?

—He Gives Me the No Feeling

Dear HGMtNF,

One place not to go from here is considering no longer accompanying your stepdaughter to holidays and events where he will be present: In your position, what you want is more supervision, not less.

I do not love this situation. I wish I knew how old your stepdaughter is. From context clues, I get the impression that she is 10 or 11? That’s definitely old enough to be having very serious talks about personal space and what makes us uncomfortable. The problem with our emphasis on “stranger danger” is that strangers are a very small sliver of the problem when it comes to child molestation: Close friends and family are responsible for the vast majority of incidents, and it’s harder to explain to children that no one, not even Good Old Uncle Stan, can touch them in inappropriate ways.

Harder, but not impossible. You and your husband must sit down with your stepdaughter (regularly) and have these conversations. There’s no need to mention her stepfather (and it would be counterproductive and potentially alienating to do so); this is about her personal comfort and about appropriate conduct and boundaries. Make sure she knows you will believe her, and that she can call you day or night if something ever seems off. Have your husband encourage his ex-wife to have this talk with her as well; you can say her pediatrician says it’s a good idea at this age (it is!).

Check in regularly. Ask questions. Be watchful. Don’t catastrophize, but don’t be complacent, either. It’s possible he’s just kind of a creepy dude and his current conduct is the absolute extreme end of its manifestation, and I very much hope it is. I would also like you and the other parents who report having been made uncomfortable by this man to compare notes. More information is always better.

My final piece of advice is to absolutely run his name through the national sex offenders database. I know that lifetime registration is often coercive and that many of these individuals (public urinators!) do not pose any threat to others, and I believe that people have a right to live their lives, but also I would absolutely look up anyone sharing a roof with my minor children and I would not give two shits about their right to privacy in that situation.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I grew up in polar opposite environments: he in a rural area as an only child with nearly endless amounts of freedom, and me in the suburbs with parents who were maybe borderline overprotective. We now have very different ideas of what is “safe” behavior for our 2 kids, ages 5 and 18 months. I feel frustrated because he never thinks anything bad will happen and gives them much more freedom than I am comfortable with; he feels frustrated because I’m a nagging mom who is implying he puts his kids in danger. How do we solve this problem?

—This Isn’t Stranger Things

Dear TIST,

Oh, boy, can I identify with you! My husband came of age in the early 1970s, riding his bike 12 miles to go climb water towers with his friends, and I came of age in the late 1980s with a hovering stay-at-home dad who never allowed me to fall over. It’s an ongoing conversation!

Your husband is right that the world is safer now than when he was a kid, and you are right that the world, though safer, is now deliberately set up to discourage and curtail that kind of childhood autonomy. Talk to him about his childhood: Did he ever get in over his head? How did he solve the problem? Would your kids know how to handle such a situation? You will have to give some ground, because the kids do need to gain the skills that will make it easier for them to be independent. They need to climb on things (and sometimes fall off) to know how to do it safely. They need to walk to the store with you a block behind them, sweating bullets, to have the confidence and awareness to achieve meaningful autonomy. And of course, always remember that at the end of it, your children will (ideally) get in a car and drive away to college and you will have zero input on where they are at 3 in the morning, so they had best be prepared to take care of themselves before that happens.

Here’s the deal: You are both going to be a little frustrated all the time. He is always going to feel like you’re being slightly overprotective, and you’re always going to feel like he’s a little reckless. The compromise will be tough for both of you, and that’s the only way you’ll know it’s a good compromise.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are separated but living together (separate bedrooms). We have children (4 and 5 years old) and live four hours away from my retired parents and their bottomless child care. He is a good father, and a good friend, but he wants a divorce (and has no interest in counseling—I’ve asked repeatedly.)

I’m enrolled in our local nursing school and will graduate in 2020. Should I plan to stay in the area and work where I’m going to school, where my moms’ group is, and where my husband will stay? My other option post-graduation is for me and the kids to move back in with my parents, re-establish friendships with people I haven’t seen in 10 years, and start fresh with a new job (with the aforementioned bottomless child care). My parents have no interest in moving to our area, but can bring their RV for longish trips.

—A Tale of Two Cities

Dear AToTC,

I’m so sorry about your marriage, but I’m heartened to hear that you think your soon-to-be–ex-husband is a good father. It’s time, if you haven’t, to contact a lawyer and begin making your casual arrangements more formal. It can seem very dire and final, but things get very messy very quickly when child support money is being passed around under the table. It sounds like you two might actually benefit (and save money!) from mediation instead of a more adversarial process, should things continue with this degree of amicability.

When this happens, I think that you may discover that the choice you are posing here is not a genuine choice: Depending on your location and the terms of your eventual agreement, you may not be allowed to move four hours away from your children’s father, who in most but not all places can expect to share presumptive joint custody with you. And if you could move four hours, what would the logistics of that repetitive hand-off look like?

Good grandparents are an incredible bonus in the life of a child. A good and present father is even better. Your children deserve to spend time with both of you, and if your parents can regularly putter down in the RV to give you a break and shower the kids with inappropriately loud toys, so much the better.

You’ll be in my thoughts.