"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, November 22, 2013

Swearing In Front Of Your Children–Do You Feel Guilty?

My 2-year old daughter was sleeping in a makeshift bed in my parents room one night in a nice, cozy little campout corner.  The next morning my mother said to me, “Your daughter said something last night, but I am not sure I heard right, especially coming from that sweet little mouth”

“What did she say?”, I asked.

“Where’s my fucking blanket?”

Disoriented in the strange room, my daughter could not find her comfort blanket and, frustrated after thrashing around in the corner for what to her was a long time, she shouted out the expletive that she had heard many times from me.

“You shouldn’t teach your daughter such things”, my mother went on. “It’s bad enough for a boy to learn that language, but a girl?!”

I swear all the time, every day, probably every hour.  I don’t swear at people but only at things.  I swear at my own forgetfulness, irritation, or frustration.  I swear at my fingers for making mistakes as I type, at the website for jumping all over the page downloading ads, at the tea cozy for getting stuck on the creamer.  I swear at the cold, the wind, the seatbelt, the traffic, and the unpaired sock in the drawer.

I used to swear at people.  I gave the finger to drivers who cut me off but stopped forever when one guy fingered me back – the first in the rear view mirror, then a second out the driver’s window.  Brake lights, open door, and Virginia cracker tree trimmer in my face.

Once in India I yelled saala bhenchod -  literally translated as ‘wife’s brother sisterfucker’.  In fact I had been waiting for the chance to say the phrase ever since I started learning Hindi, but I had no idea of its potency.  It was like putting ‘motherfucker’, ‘cocksucker’ and a hundred more twisted metaphors for buggery, sodomy, bestiality, incest, cuckoldry, copraphilia, and plain old missionary sex all in one sulfurous place. After I said it, the tranquil Kerala beach (fishermen casting nets, women carrying the catch in head loads, little naked children playing in the water) turned nasty.  One of the fishermen charged me along with his brothers, his sister’s brother, and all his friends.  Before they could let all the air out of my tires, I escaped.

I am not really an angry or frustrated person. Expletives are not said out of rage or some boiling disappointment; but expelled like a sneeze. If the scissors are not in the drawer where they should be, a good FUCK! is the best way to explosively get rid of the the irritant.  Then I can go about looking. 

My wife, who doesn’t swear and never heard her father swear, is amazed at how frequently and naturally swearing comes to me.  “They’re only things”, she says as I take aim at missing knives, papers, or keys; but she, like most non-swearers has no idea how good it feels to curse.  Why don’t I simply make a mental note of the missing item, she wonders, then quickly go down a list of all the possible places it could be, and finally and calmly go about the business of finding it?

For her maybe, a calm and centered person.  For those of us who live on the jittery edge and for whom time has disproportionate value, swearing is an escape valve.  Swearing is the steam escaping from an overheated radiator, the blue flame shooting out of an oil refinery stack on the NJ Turnpike, the popping of a balloon. I have to swear.  It feels good.  I don’t know what I would do without it.

I had never heard my father swear.  I knew that he wanted to in those times when his face went apoplectic at something I had done; when his carotid artery popped out of his neck like a snake; and when his face turned mottled and red; but he never did.  One day he had had enough.  He couldn’t believe the nonsense I was spouting – ignorant, disrespectful, and God knows what else.  He stuttered and stammered, became flustered and shaky.  Finally he got so into my face that I could smell his morning aftershave and lunch garlic breath.  “That is total BULLSHIT!”, he said. “Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit”, he said again and again.  “Horseshit, bullshit, and more horseshit”.  It felt so good to finally swear that he couldn’t stop.  That’s what saved me, for he calmed down, took my adolescent ranting for what it was, and went back to his newspaper.

In The King’s Speech, a movie about King George VI and his fight to overcome stuttering, his tutor suggests that the king swear as a way of expelling air and frustration.  George starts, “F-f-f-f…”, but can’t quite get it out. 

“Come on, Bertie”, says the tutor, “You can do it.”  Again the king tries and after a few times manages a feeble, barely audible ‘fuck”.  Once it is out, he gets stronger and more confident, and in a few minutes he is prancing around the room saying, “Fuck, fuck, FUCK”.  He is relieved and happy.  That’s how my father must have felt.  Neither the king nor my father ever became profane, but that one great, joyous outburst was enough for a long time.

In an article in The Guardian (11.22.13) Lola Okolosie writes that she is an inveterate swearer, but now that her child is getting older, her swearing days are numbered.  She, like many parents, fears that her child will embarrass her with an ill-timed cussword in public. We really shouldn’t be swearing in front of our children, she concludes.

Perhaps, but any child who has watched cable dramas, comedy, or just about any movie on FIOS will be subjected to more cursing than any one parent could possibly muster.  In fact, swearing is so common that it displaces everything else.  There is no reason for an actor to do a Stanislavski and reach for inner feeling when he can simply get up into the face of his antagonist and yell at him. 

Children are exposed to swearing all the time.  On TV, in the street, on the playground, and on the athletic fields. When actors, athletes, and other celebrities have their words bleeped, it just adds to the titillating wannabee factor.  “Ooooh, did you hear what he said?”, said a grandchild of one of my friends one day while we were watching TV.  ‘He’ hadn’t said anything you could hear, but the bleeping exaggerated the fact that he had said it anyway.

As Okolosie notes, everything is about context .  Most children learn that there is a time and a place for everything, and what is OK in one social milieu is definitely verboten in another.  Most children will keep swearing out of the reach of parents, teachers, and rabbis.  Perhaps with one or two exceptions.  I remember that my son went through a hip-hop phase during the time when gangsta rap was street currency. While he knew enough not to use gangsta language in the house, he let the bad boy posses do the dirty work for him, and blasted us with their CDs. 

I have no problem with swearing.  It is and always will be an important part of language.  It can be emblematic, as in the case of rap (N.W.A. does not sing ballads or lullabies).  It can be used for those moments of anger where no civilized tongue will do.  It can be used to shock, to épater les bourgeois, to show indifference to social norms, to blow off convention, and any number of other reasons. 

I don’t mind at all if my now adult children swear like trenchermen as long as it is not aimed at each other; and especially if it crowds out more intelligent language.  Turn on any comedy channel on cable and invariably the comic onstage is using swearing, scatology, and crude sexual references as the basis for his show.  It is rare to find versions of the old Robin Williams who was as brilliant in his standup routines as any comedian ever. His shtick was a torrent of words, allusions, doubles entendres, imitations, and satire with nary a curse word to be heard.  British humor is even more eloquent and filled with puns, quick verbal turnabouts, and a versatility American cannot seem to match.

Eventually young people will get sick of these American comedy gutter-fests and applaud more engaging and more penetrating humor.  Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, Milton Berle, Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar, Bob Newhart, Jonathan Winters, Lenny Bruce, and Mort Sahl may be relics of the past, but their genius was that even within the confines of the language of a more conservative age, they could be gut-splittingly funny. 

I have never offered any apologies for my swearing, nor have I tried to keep my mouth shut when my children were around.  I am careful in company and almost never use swear words because they are rarely necessary.  In most conversations swearing is nothing but a substitution for more insightful, accurate, and appropriate words.   In my crowd it means that your vocabulary – and quite possibly your brain - is limited. 

Children are fast learners.  They know the difference between Daddy’s swearing when he bangs his head on the refrigerator door and Mommy’s crippling verbal attacks.  They learn very quickly that there is a big difference from a toe-stubbing ‘Fuck’ and a hateful ‘Fuck you!’.  They quickly learn the power of the F-word and more often than not use it properly.  Perhaps most importantly, they get tired of using it.  When the shock value is gone, if it indeed crowds out your much more personal and intimate expressions, if it is everywhere on TV, CD, I-Pod, and movies, then it is time to move on.

Perhaps more than anything swearing is a rite of passage.  So let the little ankle-biters have their fun.  It won’t last.

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