Do You Let Your Kids Curse?

The rise of the "cursing household."

A couple of weeks ago, I was standing in the office of my colleague Jason Sheehan, food editor of Philadelphia magazine. I don’t recall exactly what we were discussing, but at some point, I said something to the effect of, “What is with that shit?” Cursing is a regular occurrence in our offices, so this was not unusual. But then I realized that my colleague’s nine-year-old daughter was seated behind a divider in his office. It was Take Our Sons and Daughters to Work Day.

Embarrassed at my use of profanity in front of such young, delicate ears, I began to apologize. Jason laughed. “Please,” he said. “We curse all the time in my house.” At first, I took him to mean that the grownups in the Sheehan household do all the cursing. But no. Jason’s adorable little girl is free to drop the F-bomb, too.

And what about Jason’s two-year-old son? Yep, he’s got a potty mouth as well. “He’ll yell ‘Bye, bye, asshole’ out the window when I’m leaving for work,” Jason explains. “‘Asshole’ is his favorite curse word, and he laughs like an idiot every time he says it.”

This wasn’t my first brush with a “cursing household,” as I’ll designate this vulgar subset of the American family. About 10 years ago, I was enjoying a beer at Philadelphia’s popular Standard Tap restaurant, next to its owner, William Reed. William was explaining to me that he and his wife had recently decided to let the swear words fly in their house. His daughter was six or seven at the time, and his son was two.

“I felt that it was kind of ridiculous to pretend that there’s some power in these words,” remembers William today. “Let’s just be a family that curses, I figured. That would be our thing.” William says his son “took to it like a duck. Fucking this. Fucking that.”

William’s cursing household didn’t last very long. “We’d be around the grandparents, and the kids would curse in an offhand way,” William says. “And I would just kind of cringe. ‘Grammy is not cool with the cursing,’ I’d tell them. And there was an incident when my son got in trouble in school. He cursed someone out. Clearly, the experiment had gone off the rails. I had to pull them back.”

Jason sees no end to his experiment. “It’s not really an experiment,” he says. “Listen. Both my wife and I are very adept cursers. We didn’t make some decision to let the kids swear. It was just reality.”

Of course, Jason realizes that his kids can’t just go around swearing in school and around most family members. “She’s pretty good about it,” Jason says of his daughter. “She doesn’t go running down the aisle of the supermarket screaming curse words. And she doesn’t say ‘fuck’ all that often. She’s gotten that some words are special. The boy, on the other hand, hasn’t quite gotten that.”

An acquaintance of mine, Libby, who is no stranger to four-letter words, was recently over at her friend Patricia’s house, where Patricia’s four-year-old son was playing the Lego Batman video game. “He looked at the screen and said, ‘Oh shit!'” says Libby. “I said, ‘Patricia, oh my God!’ He’s four, keep in mind. And she just looked at me and said, ‘I can’t control myself, and I can’t control him. I just tell him: Not at school and not in front of Grandma.'” Libby shakes her head as she recounts the story.

For me, this all just sounds crazy. I grew up in a house where cursing was completely verboten, and I’m pretty sure it took me until the age of 16 to curse in front of my parents. And let’s just say that I never did that again. We weren’t even allowed to say “fart” in my house. Seriously.

These days, I’ve got two kids of my own. They are five and seven, and they’ve never heard their parents curse even once. I let the curses roll when I’m drinking with friends and when I am in the office, just because it’s that kind of office, and I curse like a sailor when at band practice, because I’m pretty sure that’s what you’re supposed to do when at band practice, but I never, ever even think about cursing at home. OK, well, I may think about it, but I definitely don’t do it. And I’m pretty sure that my wife has only cursed a half dozen times in her entire life, and all of those were probably directed at me, and for good reason.

Oh, they’ll pick up plenty of bad words from their friends and from the world. Every day that I drop my kids off at school in West Philadelphia, I am shocked by the music that I hear blasting from the cars of the parents of my kids’ kindergaren and first-grade classmates. F-bombs, “dick,” and the N-word abound.

And “bitch.” What is it with the word “bitch”? When did it become acceptable to throw the word “bitch” around, as they were doing just the other day on WMMR’s Preston & Steve Show? I counted at least 25 uses before I stopped counting. This is morning radio, keep in mind.

Obviously the words are out there, and they’re going to hear them. But that doesn’t mean that it’s acceptable for my son to say, “Fuck, yeah,” when I say, “Would you please pass the peas?” And calling me an “asshole”? No, I don’t think so.

I’m not a person who is normally called old-fashioned, and I don’t want to be. But if it’s old-fashioned to never hear my kid say “fuck” and for me to never say it to him, so be it.