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Earning the Right to Curse


The word rolled out, throaty and muscular, a familiar battle cry of middle-aged parents navigating the treacherous interstates of America to reach a suburb by 2:00 on a Saturday.

After all, the jerk (not the word I used) nearly sideswiped us.


That’s how I explained my actions to my clearly mortified then eleven-year-old daughter, dressed in her shin guards and doused with sunscreen for the soccer match, who just watched me slam my middle finger against the glass of the window as the driver spend by.

My other daughter, eight at the time, almost immediately started to giggle, exchanging all-too familiar glances with her sister.


“Dad,” my eldest cautioned, gifted with the skill of arching her left eyebrow almost to her forehead while the other remained unbent.

“When do we get to start cussing?” my youngest asked.


I am not a man of instant wisdom, able to roll off great life lessons in pivotal moments. Once, when my girls used a curtain as a vine to swing across the room of our rented beach house, resulting in the entire window treatment being ripped out of the wall on the second day of our vacation, I made them pack their bags and say goodbye their grandparents before my wife calmly diffused the situation.


But at that moment, the answer to my daughter’s question struck me. The clouds of doubt and uncertainty that hover over all parents parted, a beam of pure light of fatherly greatness descending from the heavens.


“When you earn it,” I replied, clearly glowing at this point.


“Earn it?” my youngest asked.


I probably mumbled something about not telling their mother about my outburst (which they did), but it got me thinking about the implications of using the oft-described “foul language,” which I refer to as “everyday language.”


What does it say about those of us who drop the F bomb, speak the S word, and cringe when others disguise curse words, trying to wrap them in the gossamer cloth of “shoot” and “darn it.”


And (gasp), what if we say them in front of our children?


The answer, I think, is to raise our kids correctly by letting them know that curse words can only be wielded by those who reach a certain age. Like driving a car, being able to vote, drinking legally. We do all these in front of our children; badges of maturity that can only be achieved with adulthood.


Like with all huge parental decisions, like deciding what’s the proper age to show our children Star Wars, we must realize our own biases.


When I reviewed my first draft of my forthcoming novel, I realized I had a smoldering addiction to cursing, which was revealed in the pretty harsh language uttered from characters on nearly every page. I recalled my best friend’s grandmother, who keeps a black pen with her when she reads and crosses out the curse words on the page. So I did a keyword search of the word that rhymes with luck and deleted all of them (here’s to you, Mimi).


But I will say, it’s a harsh world out there for parents. There are no smoke breaks at work anymore, there’s no cocaine at our parties (at least not the parties I go to, and if that’s your scene, the least of your concerns is if your kids hearing you curse) and Aunt Becky is facing some serious jail time for trying to be mother of the year.


Parents need a vice. Don’t let the man (or the kid hanging on to your leg) take it from you.


Therefore, I hereby have set the top three age rules – and harsh limitations - in order to raise great humans and trained cursers (new word!) for the best of the worst words. As our pediatricians say, you know what’s best for your family.


One: no cussing before high school. You haven’t earned it yet. No one likes a kid who dies in Fortnite and yells out a curse in his beanbag.

We have to dictate to our young adults to start small. It’s not like you take a stick shift out on the interstate for the first time. Side note: if you’re raising your kid to drive a stick shift, high five.

Beauty may be wasted on the young, but the ability to say, “damn,” is not. It’s a great starter curse. Fail a test, get dumped before prom, burn yourself on the deep fryer at your job at McDonalds, that’s your word.

Two: you graduate and go to college (or community college or trade school or whatever advances your brain), you get a whole new set of curse words! Anyone who has to learn to reassemble an engine or dissect a frog or memorize medieval currency with a hangover deserves to use all the vocabulary at your disposal.

Three: Graduate from anything at this point and get a job, and you get the gold standard: the F word. It’s so beloved that a friend once gave me a book completely devoted to it, and you’ve earned it! After all, rent is always due at the first of the month, there are creepy people at the Laundromat, and, oh yeah, taxes.

If we teach these values to our children, then you can proudly send them out into the world and know when someone makes an inappropriate sexual comment to them from the cubicle over, they’ll be ready with a zinger.

I was raised in a pretty strict household, and the first time I cursed in front of one of my parents and didn’t get in trouble, it was a defining moment.

My father, a quiet gentle man who never cussed unless he was watching baseball and then stand back, folks.

A country veterinarian, Dad brought home all kinds of animals for us to care for. With this kind of exposure, I thought I needed to raise ducks, which turned out to be a wretched experience of slogging out in the frigid Illinois morning to dump out their stupid frozen pond in the stupid cold for the stupid birds that crapped everywhere (remember, I hadn’t earned the right yet to say anything better).

It was the winter of my freshman year, and he was outside with me when the top to their pen slammed down on my fingers, and I unleashed the word that Dad loved to use when the Cubs scored a no-hitter.

He looked over and me, and I held my breath. He smirked.

I had become a man.

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