As we were driving to his swimming lesson this week, my six year old son suddenly piped up from the back of the car: "Is the F word 'fuck'?"
I like to imagine at this point a reasonable, sensitively presented, age appropriate discussion on swearing in our society. However, I was caught off guard (as I always am) and his four year old sister was also in the back--either off in her own little world or silently hooked on every word we were saying. So what I actually said was: "Yes, but don't use it."
And so ensued a rather muddled discussion, in which I vaguely hit the key points I wanted to make. I deliberately said 'fuck' at least once, because I didn't want it to glamorise it at as The Word That Must Not Be Named. I know he has some concept of 'bad words,' but I don't know quite what that is as it's a phrase he's picked up from his peers.
I did not ask "Where did you hear that?" because I figured there was a big chance that the answer would be awkward. Likewise, I didn't want to say that only bad people said it. I told him: "Some people use it to express their feelings." Handily, I don't use the word 'fuck', so this wasn't prevaricating. I am very bad at self-censoring, so I never got into the habit of using the really strong swear words (the kids learned 'damn' 'oh my god' 'crap' and 'bugger' all from me.)
And in fits and starts we covered situations where you should not say it: "In job interviews," was my inspired first example. Then I pushed the age level down ten years, and we settled on 'at school' 'with other children' and 'in front of your grandparents'.
Obviously, we didn't talk about contexts where it was appropriate, but I didn't ban him from saying it either. Children swearing tends to be a provocative issue... people either find it shocking or funny. It doesn't bother me either way; I just don't want my child being the one teaching it to the others in the playground. But it seemed a little pointless to me to ban him from using a word based on his age.
I do regret not talking about the concept of offence, and why different words might offend different people. It didn't occur to me until afterwards, and then the moment had passed. I don't quite have the nerve to initiate another conversation on swearing. We'll just put that one off until his first job interview...