I recently heard my 15-year-old daughter say the f-word while she and a friend looked at themselves in the mirror. I was surprised to hear it, but I also saw how liberating it was for her, so I didn’t stop her or point out that it sounded vulgar or wrong (like I might have if she had used it to criticize someone else). When she was 8, she was made to feel ashamed of her body because she wore a puffy purple jacket to school and a boy called her a “fat grape” on the playground. So using the word in the context of complimenting her reflection empowered her.
I was proud.
I say that now as a grown woman in my 50s, but it has taken me a long time to get here. I was raised by staunch Catholics, and my mother was an English teacher who taught students to love Shakespeare. When my children were younger, I bought into the Southern culture of obedient politeness, hook, line and sinker. We moved from California to Arkansas for a few years when the kids were young.
After hearing of our planned move, our financial planner in California said, “Well, you’ll definitely save money, but it’ll be a culture shock! You do realize your children will learn to say yes, ma’am and yes, sir?”
“Really?” we mused, smiling. This will be good for them, we thought.
Our kids quickly adapted, repeating yes, ma’am/no, ma’am; yes, sir/no, sir each time a grown-up spoke to them. Initially, my husband and I liked this Southern custom, and we enjoyed watching our kids fit into the culture we’d plugged them into.
It never occurred to us that we should also introduce swearing to our children as a way to cope with the challenges of being outsiders in the South. And I never envisioned myself asking my daughter which swear word might help her the most when she feels stressed out. Then I came upon “Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language,” by research scientist Emma Byrne, and my ideas shifted.
I’m more interested now in the science behind profanity and how those words can help us cope and manage our emotions better, both as children and as adults. I’m beginning to believe that women and mothers should even embrace occasional expletives, rather than chastise ourselves or our children — especially our daughters — for using them.
Psychologists have long acknowledged what Byrne’s research reveals: That swearing is indeed good for you and can make you stronger. Various studies have indicated the physical and psychological benefits of using profanity during exercise and when tolerating high degrees of pain.
Over the past year, I’ve conducted some of my own (very unscientific) tests while working out on my treadmill, something I used to dread. It turns out that the f-word, when deployed during the hardest part of my workout, motivates me and can help me to stay on the treadmill longer. Granted, I’m alone in the basement when I’m shouting it, but a four-letter word that I once feared now keeps me going when I’m sweating profusely and eyeing the treadmill’s red stop button.
In his book “What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains and Ourselves,” cognitive language scientist Benjamin K. Bergen writes that profanity explains a great deal about human nature and the way our brains function, not just when it comes to pain but also when coping with fear, anger, passion and power.
Bergen talks about how children are often told that swearing is universally bad, but this is the direct result of repetitive conditioning and societal influences that decide which words are dirty or pretty. The name Dick, for instance, is no longer a socially acceptable nickname for a boy named Richard, as Bergen points out, for the reasons most people think. Yet, 60 years ago it was common to hear a person say, “every Tom, Dick, and Harry” to make a point and without someone giggling or turning red.
When we lived in the South and the kids were alone with just me and my husband, we didn’t enforce the yes, ma’am, yes, sir policy. We watched other parents enforce it when we would visit for a party or play date, though. Hearing and seeing that didn’t always feel comfortable to us, but I suspected it was because we weren’t raised in the South. Eventually, it became harder for us not to notice when little voices all around us began to sound more like programmed windup dolls than kind children.
“You do not jump on beds, Thomas! Yes, ma’am?”
“Do you want me to get the belt? Then quit your whining, Jack! Yes, sir?”
“Because I’m your mother, Virginia-Claire! And you do as I say. Yes, ma’am?”
I want my children to take what my husband and I taught them about respecting others and apply it to their language in a way that demonstrates not just respect but kindness. Of course, when children or adults use words to demonize, ridicule or bully others, they become hurtful and cruel. That’s true for all language, not just swear words. But as long as my kids employ swear words responsibly, and not in a way that demeans other people, I don’t have a problem with them trying out various expletives every now and then. And if I hear my teenage daughter scream the f-word after school, I won’t race upstairs the way I did last year, when she started high school.
“What’s happening?” I said, huffing and puffing.
“I’m stressed out, Mom! Okay?” she told me, “There’s way too much homework.”
If my Catholic mother were still alive, she wouldn’t exactly encourage me or her teenage granddaughter to use the f-word to cope with life’s difficulties. But as an English teacher, and a lover of Shakespeare, I also know my mom might’ve quoted Macbeth, saying, “Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more.”
Candida Gazoli is a writer and mother who lives in Pennsylvania. Find her at didaink.com.