Sticks & Stones and the Power of Words

Occasionally, I swear in front of my child. My husband hates it. My mum hates it. But I’m a swearer, that’s who I am.

I’m aware there are many parents that think I’m wrong to do this, and occasionally I do feel guilty about dropping an ‘f-bomb’ in ear-shot of the playroom. But after an encounter with a particularly unpleasant grandparent at the local soft play, I realised that the influence of language on young children goes way beyond basic semantics.

When I was flailing about in the ball pool with my daughter, I noticed a little girl who was mid-strop by the entrance. Nothing out of the ordinary, just your run-of-the-mill three year-old tantrum about putting shoes on. Her grandfather, who was overseeing this tantrum, managed to show her which foot goes into what shoe, and escort her out of the play area.

On their way back to their table, when the grandmother asked what all the fuss was about, he said wearily, ‘I’m going to beat her to within an inch of her life.’

Now I’m not one to judge anyone’s parenting techniques, and to save their embarrassment I usually don’t even acknowledge another toddler tantruming, but this comment was enough for me to stop what I was doing and look around at them in absolute horror.

He didn’t swear at her. He wasn’t angry. He said it in a calm, off-the-cuff way, whilst holding his granddaughter’s hand. And judging by the grandmother’s reaction – or lack thereof – this kind of comment was not out of the ordinary for him. The comment didn’t even register, and they all sat there happily eating their lunch.

What alarmed me most was that it was merely a throw-away comment for him. But to his granddaughter, what he said could be life-changing.

To grow up in a world where it’s normal for a man to say he’ll beat you, regardless of whether they actually beat you or not, is normalising brutal and devastating behaviour to an impressionable young child. It’s showing them that language like that is acceptable to hear, and acceptable to say. It tells them that a logical response to frustration is violent action – violence done to other people, or violence done to them. And in this instance, this language is far more damaging than the use of ‘swear words’.

There is a difference between the use of language as an exclamation, and the use of it to denote violent intent, or negative action. What he said to his granddaughter will have a far greater effect on her than my daughter hearing me shout ‘shit-waffle!’ when I can’t open the child lock on the kitchen cupboard.

But this horrible encounter has made me think more carefully about the type of language I use around my daughter, whether it’s swear words or not. You can have a monumental impact on your children without even uttering a swear word at them. Language is powerful, and all words have meaning. Apart from shit-waffle. I’m not sure that one does.

One thought on “Sticks & Stones and the Power of Words

  1. As someone who grew up in a volatile household, the worst things for me were:

    – shouting
    – unexpected shouting
    – sudden mood changes
    – rising tensions
    – vituperative tone
    – lying
    – threatening behaviour
    – actual violence

    (In no particular order)

    Tone and likelihood of intent were far more important than content.

    The outcomes are:
    – constant anxiety
    – constant vigilance
    – constant monitoring
    – normalization.

    So yes it does matter, but so do context, scale and scope.

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