Where I come from, swearing is the norm. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s one of our mother tongues. We Irish have a colourful way of expressing ourselves. Where other cultures use swearing to express frustration, anger or surprise, we have a whole different approach. We use it to punctuate the beauty of a day, the deliciousness of a pint, or the mere fact that we’re going out for some reason or another – or to announce that we’ve returned. There is almost no situation where swearing isn’t warranted.
So when I became a parent, I wasn’t convinced I could let it go, just like that. In my head, it was part of my Irishness, something to hold onto, especially as I no longer lived there. I convinced myself that it would be fine. You know the story we tell ourselves, right? Baby can’t speak or understand much, so what’s the harm? And really, there was none … until there was.
My son, somewhere between the tender age of four and five, came up to me to ask if he could watch some DVD or other, and I told him that yes, he could, just as soon as he tidied his toys away. A simple question, a simple answer. Or so I thought until he turned away and said, just loudly enough for me to hear and in exactly the tone I may have been known to use, “Oh, for f**k’s sake!” And there it was; a part of me that I deeply loved, finally turning against me. (Swearing, that is, not my son.) As with all parenting challenges, I had no choice but to come up with a way to ensure this didn’t become a daily habit.
So after some contemplation and cogitation, I sat him down for a little talk. “Son,” I said, in my most serious voice, “that word you used the other day isn’t appropriate for you to say. Only adults can say that word. But – and this is a great but – you can say any of the following instead: ‘Oh, my goodness!’ ‘Oh, my gosh!’ ‘Janey Mackers!’ ‘Janey Mackers, cheese and crackers!’ or even ‘Jesus, Mary and Holy Saint Joseph!’ (Okay, maybe not the last one.)”
At first, I couldn’t tell if the look of delight on his face was simply the fact that he had my full attention – the daily goal of all children everywhere – or if it was the idea of trying out all the new fun phrases I’d given him. Luckily, it turned out to be the latter. And when I think about it, it makes perfect sense. I hadn’t given him an outright “No”; I had given him a disguised “No” that worked for both of us. It worked for him because he now had a variety of sanctioned ways to express frustration. And it worked for me because it both stopped him from swearing and made me laugh every time he said any of the pre-approved phrases.
Almost nine years later, it still works like a charm for all three of my kids. And no, I’m not being naïve; they really don’t swear! How do I know, you say? A few reasons: how shocked they are if another child swears; how upset they get if someone swears in front of them; and, most of all, how quickly they report their dad for his bad language infringements. It’s hilarious, I swear!
Orla’s first book, Daddy 101 – The Step-by-Step Guide to Pregnancy, Birth and the First Year of Fatherhood, is available now at Amazon.
Want to read more about parenting in Hong Kong?