The Children Are Swearing More During Quarantine

In the scheme of a global pandemic, do a few inelegant words matter? Illustration by Leanne Rule
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 In the “Simpsons” parody of “Lord of the Flies,” the students of Springfield Elementary end up marooned on a desert island, which for Bart is not cause for tears but celebration. “It’ll be just like the Swiss Family Robinson, only with more cursing! We’re gonna live like kings! Damn, hell, ass, kings!”

Casual swearing is a great perquisite of adulthood, and one of the first that kids attempt to seize for themselves. Cigarettes and wine coolers make teens feel grown up, but obtaining those takes ingenuity, to say nothing of money. Swearing might be an art difficult to master in your youth, but it’s free. At ten or eleven or twelve, itchy for adulthood before the long slog of puberty has begun, kids can perform maturity by swearing with brio. Anyone who’s ever had the bad timing to share public transport with a gaggle of preteens knows this. It’s almost cute: they’re foul-mouthed but illogical, their muddled expletives like a standup act rendered into a foreign language. Damn, hell, ass, indeed.

Every kid is a virtuoso of language: those monkey-hear toddler approximations, a six-year-old’s idiosyncratic pronunciations, the malapropisms that continue well into adolescence. Most parents guard an argot of mangled words they never correct, these mistakes a tether to their kids’ fleeting innocence. (For me, it’s my younger son’s use of “forfards” instead of “forwards.” I hope he never gets that one right.) There’s something sweet about an eight-month-old trying to say “truck” and sounding like a Mamet character. It’s less darling when a kid comprehends the power of a bad word and starts wielding it. Kids listen closely—the diatribe when you stub your toe, the term you use for your most hated co-worker. When Junior deploys a curse word to give voice to his own frustrations, it’s an echo of you, or a deeply unflattering reflection. You’re revealed as the parent who cannot self-censor in front of your kids; it’s low, trashy.

Years ago, another parent in our Montessori school pulled me aside to complain that my son had taught hers a bad word. I laughed a little, which she did not like. I remember her saying, “It’s not funny”—but wasn’t it a little funny? If not, wasn’t it a measure of the kids’ savvy that they’d figured out how to cuss like grownups? It offended this woman that my son had corrupted hers, but her reaction just reaffirmed the illogical power we have granted forbidden words. This was too academic a point to offer in defense. I apologized, even though I didn’t quite mean it.

This became our household position on swearing. Telling the kids that some words are only for grownups is a kind of hypocrisy, so instead we’ve impressed on them that they must be mindful of how such language might offend or discomfit others. You can’t use these words to punctuate daily conversation, but the occasional outburst can be understood; you can’t direct hateful language at another person, but a choice exclamation when your Lego construction collapses can be overlooked. I like to think this grants the kids a kind of agency. It serves as recognition that they, too, are people, with feelings they need to express—the true power of a coarse word being its ability to hold and salve a difficult emotion. Maybe I’m just lazy. You have to choose your battles as a parent, and I’m sitting this one out.

This is all to say that my kids have been swearing a lot since schools and everything else shut down. I’m reassured when other parents confirm that it’s an issue in their quarantined households, too, even if there’s no consensus on why. A friend in California jokes, of her daughter, “I think she’s hanging out with the wrong crowd—me.” I ask if she feels she’s being lenient. “I’ve been more lenient with myself,” she said. “I feel like parenting is in large part hiding from your children what a monster you actually are. Now that there’s nowhere to hide, I am more often modelling who I really am.”

A friend in New York echoes this: “I think the problem in our house is that I am using more bad language out of my own weakness and frustration, and they are feeling emboldened to mimic me.” I, too, am frayed from pretending to be qualified to teach my kids while attempting a balance of professional and personal obligations. Maybe I’m being lenient with myself, too, and maybe I can be forgiven for being quick to anger at the slightest of things. Descending into the basement, I bang my head against a low beam, an excuse to vent I happily take.

Likely I’m not shattering the kids’ innocence; they surely see their parents more fully than we’d like to believe. Another mother of my acquaintance wonders whether it’s the adults who are seeing and hearing the kids anew. “I don’t know if this brusque language is driven by the current situation,” she said, “or if I’m just getting a window into little-boy interaction that I’ve never had before.” Another parent blames her kids’ potty mouths on her own slipping standards for family movie night. “It turns out that ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ and the ‘Police Academy’ series aren’t as tame as I’d remembered.” But, she added, “I’m worried about covid’s long-term effects on the children—if they emerge healthy and happy and the only difference is their vocabulary, I’ll be so relieved.”

That’s the crux of it. In the scheme of a global pandemic, do a few inelegant words matter? A dad I know tells me his children are, as the cliché goes, swearing like sailors. “Or it’s more like submariners who have been deployed underwater with no sight of sky or land for six months. However, the kids are safe and happy, playing together, making the best of a frustrating situation, and, considering everything, if this is the trade-off, I think we’re fucking good with it for now.”

“Shelter in place” sounds innocuous, like “running in place.” The latter implies a jogger waiting out a red light, but we have no idea when the light will turn green. The adults in my household, as in so many others, are preoccupied with grim headlines and lost wages as they perform a complicated pantomime of spousal forbearance and parental indulgence: comforting dinners, baked goods for no reason, mildly inappropriate family movie nights.

The children are not stupid. They fret, even if they cannot articulate it: they miss going off to school, mourn the summer camp that probably won’t happen, feel adrift without their beloved babysitter, are lost without their peers. They are good boys, even if the elder of them did, six years ago, teach another four-year-old the power of a well-played “shit.” It is not possible for their parents’ privilege to disguise the nature of the world into which they were born, and the boys respond with anxiety, with fraternal jockeying and punching, with stamped feet and slammed doors, with the maybe too-occasional bad word for which I scold, though my heart is not in it.

For days, the weather is rainy and grim, and seems to be matching our moods. Tempers are short. There’s a “fuck,” maybe a “bastard,” mostly muttered, occasionally exclaimed, as the kids bicker over what movie to watch or whose turn it is to bathe first. Negotiating full-time work and child care means many things fall to the wayside. Not swearing is just about decorum, and that’s a kind of façade. I wear the same jeans eleven days in a row; what’s the point in keeping up appearances?

My big kid has the charisma of a born politician and thrives in a crowd. Two years ago, a summer Sunday, he strayed from our side at the beach and returned twenty minutes later with a paper plate laden with fried chicken and potato chips, pressed on him by complete strangers. He needs that sort of input in his life. His brother does, too—we’re all social animals—but more than anything he relishes privacy, vanishing into a game on the playground, unobserved by adults.

My husband and I can attend to the kids’ most pressing needs, but they require more than us. Sheltering in place is a disruption of their social and emotional development. Swearing contains more than just their frustration; it’s an assertion of their nascent independence, which has been so disrupted. The big one is devastated when he punctures the inner tube on his bike tires; I understand the “shit.” The little one is baffled that his parents have usurped the role that rightly belongs to his teacher; I can forgive being called a “bald damn idiot.” The children are angry and distressed, and cannot retreat into a nightly Scotch on the rocks. I can absorb their epithets, understanding them as an expression of the anger and confusion most of us share.

My sons are old enough to know they can’t break out the bad words in front of grandparents (theirs or anyone else’s); they know they don’t belong in the classroom, even if they can be whispered on the playground; they know to censor themselves when smaller kids are within earshot. But while we’re stuck at home, cut off from society, it seems pointless to observe social niceties. I look forward to the day I can take the kids back to the playground—and that is really saying something, because the playground is its own kind of parental hell. I will wear clean jeans, and I trust that my children will watch their words.

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