“Fucking, fuck, shit…Elmo.”
I peek my head out of the pantry I’m cleaning – and by “cleaning” I mean depositing various items of questionable age directly down my gullet – because there is no way I just heard what I thought I heard.
Between wrestling Halloween Snickers wrappers, the running dishwasher and our water buffalo canine slurping his trough of refreshment like he always does, which is as if he’s just led a caravan across the surface of the sun, there was a lot of competing noise. Plus there was the possibility that my auditory hallucinations, which normally don’t arrive until at least Hour 13 of a day spent without adult contact, just came ahead of schedule.
Whatever the case, there was no way my darling little dimpled cherub just uttered the phrase I thought I hear…
“Fucking, fuck, shit…Elmo.”
Or maybe he did.
I look across the room and see my two-year-old standing on top of the ottoman with his chubby little index digit pointing at the furry red Muppet on the flat screen. Then he looks around at me with that twinkle in his eyes, the one that says: “yes I’m doing something naughty, but I’m cute as hell so you’re going to forgive me” and proceeds to string together that four-word whopper of a sentence for a third time, having now perfected pronunciation and emotional intonation:
“FUCKING, FUCK, SHIT…ELMO!”
Thanks to familial precedence, I was not as shocked as perhaps I should have been.
Three years ago, my daughter‘s first successful two-word string was “fucking car.” Back then, I was horrified. For like a nanosecond. After which my mostly feigned outrage morphed immediately into laughter. That’s because I would be more successful brokering a Syrian peace deal than masking my innate predilection for juvenile behavior.
I was also legitimately proud that she finally reached the important language milestone of constructing an actual phrase, even if it wasn’t independently generated since she was technically just echoing her road-enraged driver.
The point is that I’m pretty laid back about stuff like this.
Nonetheless, the relative ease with which both my children adopted swearing was a little worrisome. My first instinct was to look inward; was I cursing too much? Could last night’s dinner conversation have inspired Tarantino’s next screenplay? Perhaps.
But I’ve since learned that kid cursing has little to do with the frequency of exposure.
When I’m not busy mothering my foul-mouthed dependents, I’m a neuropsychologist. Which means I feel compelled to research every inch of their behavioral development. (And you wonder why they curse so much.)
It turns out that most children pick up on swearing very early on. They have an inherent ability to identify intensely emotional stuff (kind of like their radar for figuring out the most inopportune time to load up their Pampers with last night’s pot roast – i.e., moments before departure, which already averages a good 20 minutes behind schedule).
And it doesn’t take a background in science to understand that profanity carries heavy emotional connotation. Simply being cut off on the highway, or having our favorite toy phone stolen by that punk kid Jaxson down the street will provide us the requisite insight. Even if kids have struggled with language acquisition in general, swear word vocabulary is usually right on track.
This makes sense when we consider where swearing lives in the brain. While most language comes from our cortex (the outermost layer and evolutionarily newest part of our brain—the one that distinguishes us most from our animal friends), curse words are mediated by older, more primal areas of our noggins. Areas important for emotional response; in particular fear, aggression, and reflexive fight or flight behavior.
Brain areas that incidentally, we share with animals. So when my cat hisses at the two-year-old for carrying him around by the neck, he is essentially saying: “fucking, fuck, shit…dude, that’s not cool” in the most non-pussy way.
These brain areas develop early. In fact, our emotional brain is way ahead of our sophisticated rational brain during development. This is precisely why moms of toddlers need things like Xanax and/or Pinot Grigio and/or a marathon of the latest Intolerable Housewives of Skanktown to dull the pain. All day long we must deal with irrationally primitive brains crying inconsolably because their cookie broke in half and completely changed how it tastes…not at all. Those same brains then giggle uncontrollably five seconds later, because the water buffalo dog farted so powerfully it somehow managed to fuse the broken cookie back together.
Kid brains have minimal capacity to delay gratification and to censor thought. Whatever they want, they want it five minutes ago. Whatever they think, they broadcast it to the world – even if it’s verbally assaulting a seemingly innocuous Muppet.
Our children’s rational brains (the frontal lobes) are not yet fully operational. They simply can’t figure out when it’s inappropriate to do something (e.g., picking their noses in public, instead of waiting like rational adults to do it at a red light within the miscalculated concealment of an automobile).
It’s a state of mind not unlike when we’ve been overserved at the bar. Alcohol loves our frontal lobes and tends to “turn them off.” That’s why we become oblivious to normal social cues and think for example, that it’s a great idea to tell a pretty girl how beautiful she looks in her vagina-lengthed club dress, even when her linebacker boyfriend is within earshot. Let’s just say that our appreciation for context is inversely associated with our BAC.
Context is especially important when it comes to expletive use. A swear word’s time and place greatly influences its impact. For example, what’s more memorable, DiCaprio dropping an F-bomb in The Wolf of Wall Street, or the Three Little Pigs telling the Big Bad Wolf to fuck off and go floss? When our innocent little ones swear, it’s especially salient.
And it’s pre-wired. Kids have the hardware for profanity long before their software for delicacy and context can be installed.
But understanding the science isn’t going to protect me from the death glares I get down at the Tiny Tots Play & Squat when my child declares his displeasure at having to wait in a fucking, fuck, shit long line for the bouncy house. So what should I do about my pair of tiny truckers?
Honestly, not much.
When I think about it, I like cursing too. In fact I probably do curse more than your average mom, and in situations that many wouldn’t. My colleagues and friends would argue that it’s because my frontal lobes are underachievers in general, since much like a child, I am not known for my ability to censor.
But I also happen to believe that the world would be better off if we could jettison much of our bullshit when relating to one another. Not only the world, but certain subpopulations of the world, like fellow moms, who have become far too censored, serious, uptight, and generally too frontal lobe-mired.
I’ve found that occasionally throwing out a subtle but humor-enhancing curse word can disrupt the normal flow of “I’ve got to be perfect in front of my fellow cohort…I…cannot…show…weakness.” I believe effective swearing can model that we are not only comfortable with ourselves but also with one another. Cursing can communicate that we’re open, honest, self-deprecating, and easygoing, all things moms of those frontal lobe-challenged humans known as our children need to feel more.
And, when executed well, profanity can be really fucking funny.
Plus: it turns out that that swearing may actually be good for us. It relieves stress by acting as an emotional outlet for aggression (as opposed to actual physical violence); it can help restore a sense of empowerment by demonstrating that something is unacceptable (i.e., that fuzzy red dude’s grating god damned voice); and it apparently enhances pain tolerance, likely through that fight or flight stuff: adrenaline, increased circulation, endorphin release…etc.
Perhaps most importantly, swearing has never been shown to be directly associated with negative outcomes.
I am a writer and I love words. In fact I would propose to an adverb tomorrow if Colorado would just recognize the union. The point being that I have a deep appreciation of language. I understand that relying too heavily on expletives is lazy and depreciates the value of discourse.
But I also understand that when used sparingly and strategically, cursing can be valuable.
So, fucking, fuck, shit, everyone…let it fly.
Our kiddos may not win any classroom citizenship awards, but at least they’ll be funny and maybe even less stressed.
And certainly not afraid to put a Muppet in its place.
A version of this piece originally appeared in the 8th Edition of Cartel Magazine available on Amazon.com