You can clean behind their ears, but there may be some parts of your children you can’t reach — what they hear with those little ears
As soon as kids learn about words, they learn about rude words. And it’s our own fault. From their first little grunts we teach them how to swear. They’re born being able to make all the sounds a human can, and by process of elimination — collating the noises to which their parents respond — they can work out Swahili or Serbo-Croat or swearing. An infant will try out all the babbling, cooing sounds he can and we’ll let him know which are acceptable and which are not.
‘Mmm…Mum,’ he says. What a clever lad! we say. ‘Bbb… bum,’ he says. ‘Cheeky fellow!’ we tell him.
‘Pee, Po, Belly, Bum, Drawers!’
Having helped to pinpoint the interesting words, we then forbid our children to use them. Flanders and Swann got it about right in their saucy song that goes: ‘Ma’s out Pa’s out…let’s talk rude…’ And the worst they can find to say is ‘Pee, Po, Belly, Bum, Drawers!’
There are, as I see it, two sorts of dirty talk — swearing and naughty bits. To deal with swearing first, I have to say that my objection is that it’s boring. To preface every noun with an unimaginative ‘effing’ is to devalue ‘effs’ and the purpose of really important swearing.
Oh yes, I’m sure that it is important and necessary to have a pressure-relieving cuss now and again. Better to have a quick damn and blast than to dam up your feelings and blast off and hurt someone innocent.
Children sometimes need to swear too. They need special words to express rage or pain or strong feelings. The question is, which words? If you or your partner swear regularly they’ll already have a vocabulary of violence and you can’t be surprised when you hear it all echoed back.
If you go effing and blinding, they’ll do it, too, and then it’s too late for effing and minding.
‘Not in front of the children’
You may try to restrict your oaths to ‘not in front of the children’, but if you say it they’ll hear it. They may, of course, mispronounce it. I know of one Dad who accidentally nailed his hand to the top of a ladder and was unable to restrain an unfortunate phrase. Later in the day his daughter pinched her thumb in her dolly’s pram hood and tried to roar the same expletive. Luckily she could only reproduce it as ‘Flicking hats!’ Now their whole family, in moments of stress, call out ‘Flicking hats’.
Even if your offspring mispronounces the swear word —I expect you’ve heard ‘Oh buggy it!’ plenty of times from the guileless occupant of a swivel-wheel lie-back — it still seems wrong. In no time, their pronunciation improves and the cute cursing turns into precocious profanity and a habit that’s hard to break. Sodge it!
I don’t recommend actually teaching your child to swear (that corruption is generally reserved for older brothers who enjoy extending the word power of younger siblings, just for the hell of it, I suppose). But it can be helpful to have a few tasteful bits of invective ready for emergencies. Many, like the Flicking Hats family, find that alternatives invent themselves. Up and down the country, the air is turning baby blue with sounds of ‘Fudge!’ ‘Fiddlesticks!’ ‘Basket!’ and ‘Bothery-Bo!’
Some families choose to annex an existing word that has a good sound to it.
Brassica! Epiglottis! Periwig! Crump! Just let your dictionary fall open at any page and you’ll begin to see the possibilities. But if you do adopt this method, be careful not to light on any word you may need later in its literal sense. Your children won’t let you.
‘Ooh Mum, you said bloody . .!’
It’s hard enough trying to describe someone who has a bloody nose without having pious youngsters point at you in shocked tones: ‘Ooh Mum, you said bloody . .!’
Now for the other kind of ‘dirty words’, the belly-bum-drawers variety. The naming of parts. Curious, isn’t it, that perfectly serviceable pieces of the body — though only certain bits — get used for swearing. You rarely hear, ‘He’s a complete pancreas!’ ‘I wouldn’t do business with that old elbow!’ Funny that.
It’s possible that no wild or wanton words ever pass your lips, and you’ve taught your kids all the formal medical terms for their bits and pieces, without blushing. If you’re feeling smug at this point, I can guess — bet your buttock dollar, in fact — that yours haven’t started school yet.
‘Ooh Mum, you said knickers!’
At school, they’re suddenly exposed to the impure words and unwashed thoughts of all the other kids. Rude is added to what they already know. What used to be just a garment to keep their bottoms warm suddenly becomes frilled with nuance and ribald hilarity, as in
The vulgar vocabulary soon becomes shared and terminology becomes standard. No one likes to be different. You can send yours to nursery school with a matter-of-fact penis, but he’ll return home endowed with a willie, the same as everyone else. Intriguing to imagine the varied row of twigs, winkles, percies, peckers and plonkers in the junior Gents at the start of school, all being reduced to a regulation-issue willie by half term.
If you’re going to teach yours the proper biological terms in spite of this warning, you’ll have to complete the full course of lessons. It was explained to one lad I’ve met that his sister’s private parts should be described as a vulva. Evidently he’d been watching too many Swedish car ads, because he got it muddled both with those and with his own equipment. He now thinks it’s called a volvis (presumably as in ‘My other one’s a volvis’).
Briefly, then, if you teach your children proper swear words, they’ll use them; if you don’t, they’ll invent their own. If you teach them the proper words for parts of their anatomy, they’ll still invent their own.
My last word, on children and those words is, in brief, knickers!