Potty Mouth: Why I’m Teaching My Daughter to Swear

Val Perry Rendel essays

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“Mommy, you’re fucking it all up,” my three-year-old daughter says as I’m trying to back the car out of the garage. (Well, sorry sweetie, the goddamn wagon was in the way.)

Apparently I’m supposed to feel some kind of shame or guilt for “teaching her” to talk like this, because where would she have learned it except from me? The Google school of parenting seems to agree, because 100% of my searches on “toddler swearing” yield results that focus solely on why it’s bad and how to make it stop.

But I have no intention of stopping it, for two reasons: 1) Swearing is an important part of my own language and identity. And 2) I want her to learn how to do it right.

Many (by no means all) objections to profanity – in particular when it’s uttered by women – are based on some unsettling assumptions about social class and gender. The science of swearing, in fact, refutes many myths about cursing being the sign of a weak mind, low intelligence and/or poor upbringing.

Correlation doesn't equal causation, though, and that's kind of the point: it's not a matter of should-you-or-shouldn't-you, but more a question of learning which situations may call for swearing and which may not. Learning to wield the power of language effectively means not stripping it of any of its dimensions, and that’s even truer for women.

This doesn’t mean I'm teaching her to recreate Joe Pesci’s scenes from Goodfellas at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Our stated household policy, which at some point may get revised, is that there are some ways it’s ok to talk at home, but not at school or around Grandma. More to the point, we try to teach (and model) the difference between swearing for emphasis or swearing at (or about) things versus swearing at people. One is fine and, to an extent, healthy. The other is not. Except, of course, when it is.  

Elizabeth Taylor was one grande dâme who knew how to use maximum swearing for maximum impact. Author Kitty Kelly claims that it was Taylor’s cursing that kept stunned reporters away from a badly-injured Montgomery Clift after his 1956 car accident.  Cradling Clift’s bloody head in her lap as they waited for the ambulance, she screamed: “You son of a bitch! I’ll kick you in the nuts. If you dare take a picture of him like this, I’ll never let you near me again. Get out of here, you fucking bastards.”

It worked so well that one of the reporters supposedly even rebuked her for “talking like that.” Even though we all know La Liz could never have given up the paparazzi any more than she could have cleaned up her mouth, it’s a touching sentiment…and one that wouldn’t work nearly as well today (unless it came from, say, Kate Middleton).

And THAT’S what I want my daughter to learn. Granted, profanity that was considered nuclear in 1956 is now the stuff of PG-13 comedies, so she may have get more creative (shudder). But being creative with language is a trait I want her to develop, and that means imposing as few arbitrary boundaries as possible. Even today, women are universally judged more harshly for swearing than men are. Tina Fey recounts Amy Poehler’s textbook-perfect response to Jimmy Fallon’s objection to a “vulgar, unladylike” joke Poehler had made:

Jimmy Fallon, who was arguably the star of the show at the time…said, “Stop that! It's not cute! I don't like it.”

Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. “I don't fucking care if you like it.” Jimmy was visibly startled. Amy went right back to enjoying her ridiculous bit.

The assumption that women’s primary function is to be “cute,” to not upset or startle anyone around them with “unfeminine” behavior, deserves to be called out loudly and aggressively. It’s the answer I wish I’d had the presence of mind and strength of character to fling back at a number of folks (both male and female) who've rebuked me in the past. Thankfully I’ve overcome much of my early negative conditioning, and I plan to do everything I can to spare my daughter the need to make a similar journey.

When someone tries to bully or victimize her, when she’s out with friends or dates who try to pressure her, I want her to have that weapon in her arsenal – the power to halt someone else (even temporarily) in their tracks and reconsider her as a target. I don’t want her to “politely” ask the weird guy on the subway to please leave her alone – I want her to come out swinging, to not be afraid to bring out the heavy artillery when needed. I want her to be honest and loyal and upfront, confident and funny and strong, fearless and kind, to learn how to use language to shatter prejudices and chisel away at the patriarchy, one “goddammit” at a time. I also want her to learn to figure out when swearing will suit the context or accomplish a goal, and when it probably won’t. I can instruct her about this all day long, but the only way she's going to develop this critical capacity is to practice it herself…and doubtless make a few mistakes along the way. You know, kind of like with everything else.

Part of the price is having to navigate the occasional awkward comment at the playground or in line at McDonald's (“Is that lady a bitch, mommy?”). Judge away, motherfuckers; it’s a price I’m more than willing to pay to teach my daughter to raise her voice in a world that would like to hush her.


About the Author

Val Perry Rendel

Dr. Val Perry Rendel has a fucking Ph.D. in English, bitches, and her linguistics students used to LOVE it whenever she (occasionally) dropped one or two curses into her lectures. She now works as a in Chicago, where she and her husband are doing an admirable job of not screwing up their only child.

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