Once a child enters the realm of language they become sponges, parrots, interpreters, and lyrical dabblers. They begin to understand cognitively that words are simply a collection on sounds. The act of speaking is this big and mysterious, unfolding puzzle that contextualizes the vast bulk of experience and, to a child, fine-tunes a budding ability to communicate needs, thoughts, and desires. When a child learns a language, the first thing they grasp is the power and freedom of externalizing thoughts and creating a dialog with parents, friends, caregivers, etc. Rules, limitations, and taboo are usually saved for later.
All of these developmental milestones move me to reflect on comedian George Carlin (a contextual leap, I know). Carlin was revered as a direct and confrontational comedian, who routinely pointed out the contradictions and hypocrisies of the English language, with an emphasis on the oxymoron (I.E. jumbo shrimp). One of his most celebrated and controversial comedic pieces was entitled “Seven Dirty Words” which was an extended musing on the seven words that are deemed so deplorable that you cannot say them on television (I will let you use your imagination on this one). Carlin’s intention was not simply to provoke, but to bring a sense of awareness and inquiry to our collective sense of propriety and our desire to deem some words “bad” or unspeakable. He said that these words themselves have no inherent power and that society makes them taboo and explicit.
This got me thinking about profanity and parenting.
Since my child is now at the age, or even beyond, where he could easily and enthusiastically pick up on a random curse thoughtlessly blurted out, I should be more careful…maybe. But I am having a bit on an internal conflict on this one. Should I tow the line, and dogmatically discourage my child from exploring the more potent side of the English language for the sake of propriety and manners, or should I let him delve into the power and complexities of language with my guidance, but minimal restrictions? With cursing in particular, intention in everything, and using a word(s) to offend or upset another person should actively be discouraged. But why black line portions of the language because they may be offensive to others, especially when they are such an obvious and enduring part of the culture? I am not advocating for streams of profanity flowing liberally among the playground set, but maybe we should revisit our notions of what and why words are “bad” and afford our children more freedom and less dictatorial taboo.
How do you navigate the issue of profanity with your children/family? Is it absolute taboo? Is it permissible under certain situations and with certain intent? Or is a bad word just undeniably a bad word?