When my dad swore, it was for a very specific reason: a boiler had exploded deep within the part of his brain responsible for suppressing parental frustration. Dad was fond of goddammit, but he was also partial to goddamn, as in “Goddammit, I can’t fix anything when you goddamn kids keep losing my goddamn tools!” To his credit, I didn’t find out that my father knew the F–word until late in my teens. He uttered it quietly, only once, at tax time.
We kids were not supposed to swear. (My mother never did; the words would have made her blush.) We faced a stiff penalty if caught talking like Dick Cheney—there was an amuse–bouche of Lava soap at the ready for anyone who violated the edict, and since there were seven of us, there was no chance of not being caught.
Looking back at my father’s swearing now, I find it almost quaint, at least in comparison to my own liberal use of the blankety–blank–blanks upon reaching adulthood. I spent long, childless years honing the nonchalant injection of the effenheimer, as in “Hey, dude, long time no see, what the eff is going on?” Thanks to casual profanity, I could be reasonable yet rebellious, sensitive yet edgy. This was my view, anyway. My wife kind of saw it as me picking my nose.
But swearing gets written into your operating code after a while, and this can backfire when you find yourself in charge of a child who is learning to speak. Just as a typical American might do if dropped in Paris without a phrase book, my 2–year–old daughter, Parker, has set about learning the language by repeating what she hears—especially those words that end a sentence, contain few syllables, and are exclamatory in nature.
One evening not long ago, while carrying my daughter through a fine restaurant, enjoying the good life, I discovered that I was unwittingly parading around in a $120 shirt with explosive diaper seepage all over the sleeve. I used a short word at the end of a sentence that was exclamatory in nature, whereupon my wife grabbed our daughter and headed for the women’s room. (Easy, now. There wasn’t a changing table in the men’s room.)
That’s when an even greater horror played itself out. Through the door of the women’s room I heard my intestinally relieved daughter cheerily repeat the word, at the top of her lungs, three times. No greater pain can be inflicted on the human ear than the sound of a toddler using the word f–ck.
I washed my shirt in the restroom sink and shuffled back to our table in a state of deep regret. You think you’re a good parent because you don’t feed your kid Pop–Tarts for dinner or take her to R–rated movies that begin after 9:30 p.m. or leave her in the car during the high heat of summer, and then you go and teach her the F–word. Hearing my daughter say it, I realized that my wife was right all along. It was a foul word. That was it, I told myself. I was done swearing around my little girl.
We finished dinner and headed out to the lobby, where Parker stormed the gumball machine. No gumball, honey, we’ve had enough to eat, I said. But Parker is adorable, and within 35 seconds a stranger had produced a quarter and handed it to her. We smiled, our daughter popped the windpipe–sized mass in her mouth, and as I carried her to the car I turned to my wife and blurted, “Can you believe that? Everyone undermines the f—ing parents.”
Aihhh! What was I, some kind of profanity addict? I needed help. Driving home, I turned philosophical, delivering a monologue for my wife on how, if I really wanted to quit swearing in front of my daughter, I had to quit swearing, period. “Maybe I should start saying ‘fudge,’?” I told her. “Should I? Or does saying ‘fudge’ sound funny—I don’t want to sound like Ned Flanders.”
Our daughter was in the back seat listening to my ramblings, and it was at about this point that I realized I had dropped off my father–in–law without returning his keys, which meant we’d have to turn around and drive back across town. Only one word came attached to this realization, and, without thinking, I expressed it loud and clear.
Don’t worry, our friends told us later. If you ignore the word, your daughter will eventually forget it—she won’t even know what it means. They should have been there the next morning, when my wife wiped my daughter’s bottom, which was inflamed from diaper rash, and my daughter let her know exactly how it felt.
Paul Scott has written for the New York Times Magazine, Men’s Journal, and Outside, among other publications. He lives in Rochester.