Over on Verla Kay’s Children’s Literature boards, we had an intriguing discussion about the use of swear words in young adult books. Published writers and author hopefuls all weighed in on when, if, and how much it was appropriate to curse in books targeted for teens.

As a former teacher of both middle and high school, I know fervent language is a rite of passage among even the most well behaved kids. While I didn’t allow it in my classroom, we had a rule in the darkroom. While in the pitch black, holding sensitive but squirrelly rolls of film in our hands, trying to load the tight coils on a wheel for development, we agreed that “if the film hits the floor, any words you say cannot and will not be held against you.”

Teacher included.

I’ve been wondering myself when and how to let the kids get exposed to language. It crops up unexpectedly, even in movies targeted for small children. I remember well the shocking moment in Stuart Little when an alley cat uttered a four-letter word. Kids pick up on new sounds and often roll them around their mouths, or tuck an interesting sounding word away to repeat at a bad moment.

So we sat at Jason’s Deli, and I asked them if they knew any bad words. Emily insisted she didn’t, although in 4th grade, I felt certain she had been exposed.

“Really?” I pressed her. “Nothing? It doesn’t matter to me. I’ve heard everything and you won’t be in trouble.”

Still, she shook her head.

“I have!” piped up Elizabeth, newly minted in 1st grade. This did not surprise me at all.

“Well, out with it!” I said. “I want to hear which one!”

She dropped her eyes to her mac and cheese. “No.”

“Hmmm,” I said. “I’d really like to hear it.”

She still said no.

“Well, what does it start with?”

Elizabeth thought for a moment, straining to recall her spelling, which was still new. “S,” she said finally.

“Well, is it ‘s’ like snake or ‘sh’ like share?”

She seemed confused by this.

“Is the next letter ‘u’?” I asked.

She didn’t want to answer anything. So I pondered s-bombs for a bit, then suddenly realized the word. “Elizabeth, is the word stupid?”

She snapped her head up. “Don’t say that!” she hissed.

I honestly tried not to laugh. “Stupid is not a bad word!”

When she continued to scowl, I persisted. “You shouldn’t call someone stupid, and that is not nice. But stupid is just a word to describe something you find to be less than smart. Like a stupid rule.” (As in a rule about not using stupid, I thought, but didn’t say. It’s one thing to keep children playing nice, another to remove language to accomplish that. Makes me think of Newspeak.)

She still flinched every time I used the word. We finished dinner, me trying not to laugh and wondering how to get across the difference between actual swearing and mean words. I guess I have a bit of time left before the true four-letter words start to fly.

Maybe I should get them some good books.

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