Washing Mouths Out With Soap

When I got pregnant with our firstborn, I knew it was time to make some big changes.  Namely, my husband and I were going to be better at keeping our house clean and we were going to stop swearing.

“There are all kinds of different expressions we can use,” I told him.  “We don’t have to resort to profanity.”

Many, many different expressions — from golly to land’s sakes to holy cow.  Looking at the gorgeous, pristine faces of first one baby, then another, how could we even think about using swear words around them?

Well, you know how it goes.  The gorgeous, little pristine faces turned into howling furies now and then.  They screamed, they vomited, they smeared food in their hair.   Still, we were pretty good at not swearing.  After all, we were role models.

More time passed.  Years, decades.  Send two kids out into the world (i.e., the public-school system) and they come back sounding like they’d joined the navy.  Massive, familywide breakdown into four-letter expletives after token resistance from my husband and me.  Fuck, yeah!  However, we do try to teach them appropriate times and places to use their newfound vocabularies.

The kids grow up and leave home, still swearing.  It’s the two of us again, still swearing.

The trouble is, you forget about exemplary behavior around small kids when you don’t have them.  This would explain my husband’s lapses Saturday night when we were around our friends Marc and Marina and their two young sons.  We met them in Chinatown in the early evening — which quickly led me to realize this was family hour across the city.  There were kids everywhere in the restaurant, with fresh supplies of strollers stored nearby.  The atmosphere was, let us say, animated.

Dumplings appeared.  We even got chopsticks this time.  Chicken with fried garlic.  Beef with ginger.  Turnip cakes.

“Fuck, this is good!” my husband said with great enthusiasm.

I would say there was silence after that, that you could have heard a pin drop, but the restaurant wasn’t that kind of place.  Still, his pronouncement seemed to have gotten the undivided attention of the two kids sitting with us.  I kicked my husband under the table and raised my eyebrows.

“Oops,” he said.

More food, more conviviality, chopsticks flying.

“Goddamn!  This is some of the best food I’ve ever eaten,” my husband announced loudly.

Half an hour later, lurching into the crowds as it rained and we searched for the subway entrance, we descended underground to look for our train.  Here, you could say anything and nobody would notice or kick you in the shin or raise an eyebrow or stab you with a chopstick, if necessary.

“Damn!” my husband said.  “You know, I just forget about not swearing around kids.  It’s been so long.”

It’s been so long and we’re out of practice.  Our house isn’t kid-proofed and neither is our vocabulary.  The only thing that will save reprobates like us, I fear, is another chance at redemption.  At our age, they’re called grandkids.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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10 comments… add one
  • In the car the other night, granddaughter Isabella (not quite 6) informed us that she would no longer say “the f-word” because she knew we didn’t like hearing it. We were relieved to discover that she thinks “the f-word” is “fart.” 

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Oh, dear.  Think our kids skipped over that stage to the hard core.

  • smile.

  • Cindy A Link

    My father curses quite professionally. My son spent summers at the grandparents when he was little. Almost every fall, I would get a call from his teacher about the use of expletives. One teacher complained about the F word and also wanted to know what “poochie” meant. I told her that my father actually did make a flawed attempt at cleaning up his language in front of the grandkids. Poochie was his slang for son of a bitch.

  • Steve Link

    I notice that you deviated from the urge to f**k up the quote from Jamie! 🙂

    My thoroughly modern daughter and I made a pact at a Texas-OU game to avoid curses because of the young souls around us. We had great seats, close to the field, and my green-eyed, curly-haired, blonde, gorgeous daughter was undoubtedly picked out by the network cameraman rolling back and forth directly in front of us. On the way home, after a miserable defeat to OU, we complimented each other on our self-control. Then she confessed. “But you know, Papa, there may have been some really shocked deaf people at home watching.” Fluent in American Sign Language, she had been silently cursing throughout the game.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Poochie sounds kind of sweet, Cindy.

    Steve, I assume you suggested your daughter wash her hands with soap after the game.

  • Words are so powerful. It’s really hard to teach the subtlety of when the use of such words is permissable. But kids will hear them, if not from their parents, from somewhere. And there are a lot of things worse than saying fuck. What I really hate, on esthetic grounds, is the use of fuckin’ as a universal adjective.

  • M A Link

    LOL!  My family is full of swearing women.  When my youngest sister had a child she swore whe’d clean up her foul language.  She is a manger of an office & after she failed to acquire a coveted contract, her staff let everyone from the office go home early because they knew she would be on the rampage (not AFTER anyone, but just pissed & verbalizing it!).  She knew she’d failed with her young daughter when she heard the child say, “shit-a-godamn” just like my mom…  We can’t help ourselves.  Sometimes these are the only words that will convey exactly how you feel…

  • Our kids survived, their main concern is with annoying each other, the foibles of adults pass by like clouds.

  • It’s a struggle for me  on a constant basis.  Here I am trying to keep it clean and my kids are the ones dragging it out of me.  Why just the other morning I growled between clenched teeth and tight lips, “fuck!” I looked at the time.. it was only 6:30am.  I use it as a sort of barometer on how the day will go.  Clearly the f-bomb at 6:30am did not bode well for a happy blissful day.

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