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Let My Kids Swear?

It's a lost cause, my friends claim.

"Face it," says one, "swearing is part of the vernacular now, and every kid knows it."

Of course, my kids know it, too (although not as well as they believe they do). I like a good oath on occasion, and having come of age in a newsroom, I could teach them a thing about energetic cussing.

But I don't, just as I don't allow my oldest teen to have a beer around the house to teach him "responsible drinking," as if drinking were an act that required a training bra. I don't think there's such a thing as responsible drinking for a kid, and I don't think there's any such thing as acceptable swearing.

There's a moat around my house, and all the swearwords must be thrown into it before a child crosses the drawbridge. It's like checking your spurs at the door in the old West. I don't want the finish ruined.

And it's not a lost cause, though it is a hard uphill climb, and mined with compromise, contradiction, and controversy.

Take "damn." English major that I am, I don't consider it altogether a swearword. It has legitimate uses, as in describing acts of war that damn their perpetrators' souls. I also wouldn't punish a child of mine who dropped a shovel on his toe (this has happened) and, as a reflex, said, "Damn." Nor do I consider "hell" a swearword, unless it is preceded by directions. And I sometimes beg the question with expressions such as "Shiitake mushrooms!"

But the others, the F-word and its ilk, seem like they're usually used when swearing is intended for show-off purposes, for lack of linguistic creativity, or to mime a phony sophistication in a crude way. In the mouths of children, foul words cause cavities of the spirit. I don't use those words toward my children. And they don't use them around me, except for the almost-grown one, who can still cuss himself out of the car keys but can't see that when he does, he sounds not cool but like he's got a thief in his mouth who's swallowed his brain. The younger ones? I don't wash their mouths out with soap.

I make them do it themselves.

Bite off a corner and chew until foamy. Harms nothing. Good for the digestion. And memorable. When I swear, I put a quarter in the charity bottle. The charity bottle is about half filled.

Why swearing, when I could fight more important, more dangerous battles on so many other fronts?

There are several reasons, some aesthetic, some plain practical.

I believe that swearing is a sort of gateway drug of the emotions. My seventh-grader seethes, "Everybody swears, Mom! It doesn't mean anything!" Which is precisely my point. It should. If someone swears, it should be in extremis, backed into a verbal corner with nowhere else to go. And there are always other places to go.

A steady stream of expletives, pulsing in from rappers, sitcoms, and movies, blunts the meaning and the message, just as the first cigarette makes you heave, but the first pack goes down easy.

Swearing cheapens the men and women our boys and girls will grow up to be. Once you've sworn at your mother or your father  -- and one of my sons has, but then burst into tears  -- you've broken something that has to be carefully rebuilt.

You might call it respect. Not for your parent. For yourself.

So, it lacks creativity and civility, but it also blunts the senses to other forms of violence, verbal and otherwise. It leads to the snicker when the guy on the screen gets blown away, or even when the fat lady falls down on the "funny video" show. It opens the door to seeing something serious as trivial, something painful as silly. On the most basic level, it opens the door to verbal bullying, to "moron" and "retard."

I have plenty of good friends who tolerate "bite me" and "frickin'" as sort of Disney versions of the real thing, the kiddie cocktails of swearing. But we don't (though we do allow the kids to say "balls" and "boobs" if they need to describe a body part and are too self-conscious or embarrassed to be clinical).

And we definitely make the exception for swearing in a quote  -- whether it's what some bully said on the bus or Shakespeare ("Out, damned spot!").

Our children know that Dad and I swear once in a while. Like having a drink, it's not my most life-affirming act as a grown-up, but, in measured amounts, not a social evil, either. As I am not an idiot, I do know that my children swear outside the moat. "Shitty old dog!" I heard my 6-year-old yell the other day (and it turned out that she was denotatively correct). I pretended I hadn't heard.

I wish they wouldn't swear, any of them, anywhere. I try to tell them how unimpressive their verbal sewage is.

I did recently catch my younger son saying to a sleepover friend, "One thing, don't swear around them." And I felt that was triumph enough. For he wasn't hiding his indiscretions from me so much as understanding and respecting our boundaries. And that warning also meant, I hope, that our kids had developed some sensitivity to swearing, to where it belongs and where it doesn't, which I hope they will take with them when they venture out, beyond the moat, forever.

Jacquelyn Mitchard's first young-adult novel, Now You See Her (HarperTeen), will be published in March 2007.