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Why 'shut up' annoys me more than f-bombs

My 4-year-old son loves to swear. I imagine this is some kind of karmic retribution for the high school years I spent thinking I was Courtney Love, wearing torn T-shirts and saying f*%@ at Shabbat services with my parents.

He’s been through a few different phases of favorite swear and/or just plain disturbing words. Here they are, in order:

1. F---  dammit

2. I hate you

3. S---

4. Shut up

I’ll admit it, f--- dammit he got from me. Although I rarely use the two words together, I use each on a fairly regular basis when faced with frustration. I went through an optimistic period of swearing-off swearing when I was a new mother. And then, as with most things I’ve sworn off, the vows I made in my noblest moments dissolved in the face of the exhaustion that accompanies motherhood.

So I changed my vow: I will not swear directly at my son. At this, I’m happy to report, I’ve been mostly successful. Although there have been two notable occasions (both of them preceded by a trip to Chuck E Cheese. Coincidence? I think not) when no phrase in this language or any other provided a satisfactory substitute to, “Get the f--- in the car already, before I lose my s---.” 

The fact that I haven’t managed to stop swearing around my son can drag me down into a shame spiral. What kind of trashy mother am I? I had fully planned to drop the whole Courtney Love routine before it got to the pregnant-with-a-cigarette stage.  And here I am, saying f--- when I burn the cupcakes I was making to bring to Gymboree.

But it’s not just my influence. “I hate you,” has certainly never once come out of my mouth. Ever. Not to my son or to anyone else in this world. When I heard him say “I hate you,” that probably disturbed me the most, but “shut up” has been the most stubborn and hardest to combat. We can thank "Toy Story" for that particular nugget of joy. “Shut up" is the current favorite. My son finds creative ways to work it into every aspect of our day.

This morning at the breakfast table, he serenaded us with:

Doe, a deer a female deer.


At this age, he’s feeling for the edges of his world. Trying to figure out the equal and opposite reaction for every action he sets in motion. And big reactions are very satisfying, including negative ones. So as a parent, I often get confused as to how to respond. I don’t want to ignore inappropriate behavior, but I don’t want to fan the flames by giving him a big response.

In spite of my Courtney Love-esque origins, I get as embarrassed as any other soccer mom when my sweet angel starts swearing like a sailor at Target. So what am I doing about the fact that my son’s mouth would make Joe Pesci’s character in "Goodfellas" blush?  Sometimes it’s important for me to distinguish between behavior that I find embarrassing for one reason or another, and behavior that I object to for reasons more legitimate than what other people think of me.

Kidstock / Getty Images/Blend Images

Does your sweet little angel swear like an unbleeped Real Housewife of New Jersey?

Both “f – dammit” and “@!$%#” I completely ignored and they both dissolved in only a matter of weeks. “I hate you,” he picked up from an older friend. He lost interest in it when she did. They’ve both grown out of it now.

“Shut up” is the lone hanger-on.

I’m of the opinion that no language is inherently bad. Some language is certainly mean and some is plain lazy, but at 4 years old neither of these arguments manages to dissuade.

“Shut up” serves a big need for my son. He’s enormously frustrated by his lack of power in the world and by the inadequacy of language to express the magnitude of his emotions. Come to think of it, these are the exact same motivations that drive me to swear.

So my strategy right now is this: I’m trying to teach him the distinction between expressing his anger and taking it out on the people around him. I tell him he can go in the other room and shut the door and scream and swear as much as he wants. It’s not working 100 percent of the time, but we’re definitely having moments of real success. I think that the permission to have feelings is important. And while I secretly hope that allowing him to swear will lessen its appeal in the long run, I try not to have expectations that may only lead to frustration. Because we all know how I start talking when I get frustrated.…

Related video: Kids and cursing, the new rules

Jillian Lauren is the  is the author of the memoir Some Girls: My Life in a Harem and the novel Pretty. Her writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily, The New York Times, Los Angeles Magazine and Vanity Fair among others. She has performed at spoken word and storytelling events across the country.  She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, musician Scott Shriner, and their 4-year-old son. She blogs about motherhood, adoption, writing and being a rock wife at http://www.jillianlauren.com/blog/