Does having kids mean you need to surrender your license to curse?
I will tell my children, when they are old enough to understand, that they shouldn’t curse. The reasons are obvious: Not only do you not want to offend people who might not like it, but you also don’t want to eliminate any opportunities for yourself. There are plenty of people who will smile politely in the presence of course language but will mentally dismiss the speaker’s viability as a friend, colleague, or, say, highly-paid future employee.
There may well be people who will read these thoughts and think less of me for even bringing up something so distasteful. Of course, those people can go fuck themselves. I just try not to say that out loud any more.
More than once, I have launched into a salty monologue only to notice my wife sheepishly gauging the reactions of those around us. “Where’s the filter?” she will strain to ask me telepathically. Later, she will confirm that the woman on my left is the preacher’s wife, the older guy has a heart condition, and the other guy is the admissions director for Harvard—and my wife was pretty sure she saw him jotting down the names of our children. (That AC/DC shirt he was wearing apparently did not mean he was “cool” after all, but was rather some nerdish homage to electricity.)
In fact, profanity is a Cool Kids Club that some of us seem to have trouble outgrowing. I am guilty. I like to pepper my anecdotes with the occasional F-bomb to alarm, disarm, and hopefully amuse. I like to think I place them carefully enough into my speech as not to be gratuitous or overly vulgar.
In my more self-aware moments, I realize that these polarizing audio tattoos often make a more lasting impression than I would have liked.
My profane tendencies were honed in college, where my higher education was at constant odds with my rapidly devolving vocabulary. It was mostly nerves, I think. I was away from home for the first time, scared to death and trying to act like I was completely comfortable with this training-wheels version of adulthood. Only unconfident types would bother censoring themselves, and hey, fuck those guys, right?
I’m all grown up now, so beer me, fuckface!
Cursing like a sailor is good, not-so-clean fun when you’re a teenager. Sitting around, musing over the flexibility of the word fuck: It’s a verb! It’s an adjective! It’s an exclamation! It’s a compulsive verbal tic! It’s all this and more. George Carlin made it clear to our parents that there was really no point in getting so uptight about the whole thing, right? So, what’s the fucking problem?
The problem is that cussing is contagious. If you are immersed in it, you’ll do it more, and your filter will soon become a scrawny beggar, silently holding a sign in hopes of being noticed. I’ll never forget the day my mom came to visit me at the start of my sophomore year of college and took me to the grocery store to christen my new off-campus apartment.
She was treated to pride-inducing discourse like, “Should we get some fucking apple juice, Mom?” and, “Oh man, I fucking love Cheerios!”
This experience gave rise to her famous deadpan catchphrase: “My son, the English major.”
Worse, I kept doing it the entire day, even as I tried desperately to censor my words. I began to realize I was making a fool of myself by speaking this way, without real control of my word choices.
Then, I decided to go into the television news business. These were even darker days for the beleaguered filter, because now my enablers were adults. Journalists tend to pride themselves on their toughness, on their ability to handle things that more delicate people can’t handle, and perhaps most of all: their ability to see through bullshit.
In fact, “bullshit” was the Most Valuable Profanity of the newsroom. A good reporter had a good bullshit detector. A jaded news director would hear a seemingly innocuous quote from an official and declare it to have been complete bullshit. Problems with the news gathering equipment? That’s bullshit!
In-house union rules were also total bullshit, unless you were in the union, in which case demands by management were bullshit. Once, an HR person at a TV station told a group of us that our superiors wouldn’t put up with “any sexual harassment bullshit.” These were the early 1990’s, mind you, but there was little doubt about what was and what was not okay. The filter was tied up and left for dead in the trunk of my car during these years.
Through several newsrooms and several subsequent television production outfits, profanity seemed to be a universal badge of honor. It was the insider’s all-access card, the professional extension of the Cool Kids Club: You can’t take it? Okay, why don’t you just wait in the car while the adults talk?
I have occasionally been struck by the realization that someone I liked and respected was merely smiling politely while the rest of us lobbed F-bombs across the meeting room table. Is that the price of being in the big leagues, or a sign that some of us are flashing our yellowing Club cards like they’re still something to be proud of?
Nothing will force you to re-examine your own behavior like becoming a parent. Your kids are going to emulate you. I wanted to be a “cool” dad, but I didn’t want to be that guy who convinces himself his kids are going to hear things eventually anyway, so I shouldn’t cloister them from the “real” world. These are the parents who unintentionally screw their kids out of countless opportunities they’ll never even know they missed, by encouraging bad manners of one type or another.
I believe profanity is a gateway vice. Drop a few fucks here and there, and the filter is on the ropes. Next thing you know, you’re convincing yourself that some totally offensive joke probably won’t bother anyone. They didn’t seem to mind when you called that scandalous politician a big douchebag, right? I mean, no one said anything. Suddenly, you may realize that the filter is out cold on the floor, but not before you’ve said something you really wish you hadn’t.
In the name of responsible parenting, I briefly tried a few substitute curses. Every parent knows poop is the new shit. By extension, kook is just as good as fuck, I reasoned. Four letters, similar sound, this can work. The Smurfs have been doing it for years, for smurf’s sake.
But the first time I actually exclaimed, “That is some kooked-up poop!” I realized this was a doomed plan. Not only did I feel like a moron, but I also discovered it’s not the words that fascinate the kids, but the subversive twinkle in their parents’ eye that they gravitate toward.
My five-year-old daughter immediately rushed over for clarification on exactly what “kooked-up” means. Um, nothing honey. Hey—whatsay you go watch some television!
When, soon after, I heard her drop a completely out-of-context, “Eff that!” I realized the war was over, and I had lost. I could just see her kindergarten report card: “Anna is reading at a high level and listens well, but frequently tells her classmates to go fuck themselves when it comes time to share.” (The report card would be CC’d to the admissions guy from Harvard.)
With great sadness, I finally decided to hand over my faded Cool Kids Card to the filter, who now enjoys unprecedented levels of vitality and influence. Between protein shakes and bicep curls, he sits on my shoulder, killing one hilarious anecdote after another. Seriously? Fuck that guy. I mean, darn him.