When I first started working with kids, I quickly learned how important it was to speak their “language” in order to connect with them. This usually meant saying “crap” at some point in our first few exchanges. Cliche, but it worked almost every time.
Being a lifelong fan of cursewords, I always viewed language as just one more means to communicate – I thought words were just words, each one no more powerful or important than another. Saying “crap” to an angry 14 year-old was not high on my list of things I cared about. Slowly “crap” was joined by “oh my god” and “jesus” and later “shit.” Each one had its place in my spoken rotation.
So it might come as a bit of a surprise when I tell you that despite my highly liberal worldview, I am actually a fairly conservative parent. To be fair, my kids are only 8 and 6, and I assume it is harder to be conservative with older kids. But still, I have always been very careful about what my kids watched, listened to, or overheard. They almost exclusively watched PBS for the first few years of their lives because I wanted to protect them from the commercials that saturate the Disney Channel and Cartoon Network. They have never watched a rated R movie. I usually have NPR on in the car, although I also listen to Top 40 stations and my daughter loves Ke$ha (super great!…not).
When the kids were small, we forbid the use of words like “stupid” or “dumb” because I hated to hear them come from my angels’ sweet little mouths. It sounded so crass to hear little kids shouting about “farts” or “dumb heads.” I didn’t want my children to be like those children, because I was a much better parent than that. Right?
Over the last few years, I came to realize that “stupid” is not actually a curse word. It’s not. In fact, some times it is the perfect adjective for how I feel when I make a public mistake, or how someone’s hair looks, or when someone says something that is completely wrong. So the moratorium on “stupid” ended.
Just in time for me to begin working in the public school system. And now I flounder because so many parents have vilified words that are not actually curse words, because they find them to be unkind or rude or not in agreement with their own beliefs. It makes it nearly impossible for me to make the connections I used to make with language because now using any of those words results in gasps and shocked faces and accusations of “you said a baaaaadddd word!”
The truth is, teaching our kids that words like “dumb,” “stupid,” and “hate” are bad words is actually a really dumb idea. Why?
Because they aren’t bad words.
This is such a waste of our parenting energy, and I know parents are really working on this because of the strong reactions I see in 2nd graders when they hear the word “stupid.” I’m not saying just go ahead and encourage whatever words they want to use – I am saying let’s not empower words that don’t really deserve it. There are plenty of stupid things out there, and dumb mistakes, and movies that people hate. This, my friends, is a fact. To deny it is unhealthy.
In fact, I daresay our interests in appearing “classy” and well-bred are some of the main contributors to the increase in behavior problems and aggression in children. Every day, I teach children about feelings and problem-solving and how to get along, but every time I have asked a class “is it okay to be angry?” they always say “NO!”
When we try to suppress in our children the things we, as adults, find unattractive, we are denying them the basic right to express themselves. We are teaching them that these feelings – and their descriptors – are wrong, and it doesn’t take a psychologist to recognize that when you teach a child that their human characteristics are not okay you are creating a ton of inner turmoil and shame for that child. None of us want to do that, do we?
Parenting decisions can’t be based on aesthetics. Our children are not simply reflections of our parenting – they are also themselves, little people who will grow into big people. They are not us.
So, go ahead and teach your kids what is right and what is wrong. Help them to understand that there are curse words and kind words and “magic” words. Tell them that it isn’t nice to call someone “stupid” or “dumb.” Tell them that “hate” is a strong word and they should use it carefully. But don’t teach them that these are bad words, because they are not.
To say otherwise is just stupid.