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The Issue: To Say or Not To Say…

The Issue:  To Say or Not To Say…

By Remy Agee and Blair Selby

As most children do, my grandchildren at times erupt in frustration with a swear word…most of which they hear from grown ups.  Their parents are making a conscientious effort to curb the use of such words; I certainly agree with their actions.  What I find difficult are the alternatives.  What is an acceptable substitute word for one family may not be alright with another family.  If each set of families chooses ‘other words’, how on earth do I keep it all straight? And that causes confusion among the grandchildren: Words not permitted in their own household may be perfectly acceptable in general society, e.g. darn.  I need some help managing it all.

I applaud a parent’s effort not just to teach, but to ask all adults to serve as role models, for a young child learning to use alternatives to swear words whether in anger or frustration.  Just walk to the mall or a fast food restaurant and your ears will be bombarded by the almost constant use of the ‘f’ word by all ages today.  I was walking towards a store entrance recently and heard very clearly a woman in her 40’s using that word at least every fourth word as she spoke very publicly on her cell phone!  I was so tempted to say something, yet what could I say?  How immature she was?  How uncouth?  So I’ll just focus my efforts toward my own grandchildren instead of starting a ruckus in the parking lot.

First, I must admit my own guilt!  Yes, I can swear like a sailor, but do so only when I am alone…or in my head.  Still not good, as like any habit, it is hard to break and monitor in public.  As my grandchildren have become verbal, it has become increasingly apparent to me that I also have to curb my outbursts anywhere, anytime just to keep those precious little ears from hearing what they should not.

I understand confusion on this issue.  What is acceptable to one set of parents, may not be to another family or friends of family.  My choice of substitutions has been deemed not acceptable by MOM and, thus I am repeatedly corrected by my grandson.  More importantly, he is confused by what I respond with as an acceptable word, because it is not according to his parental teachings. And that’s where all of my good intentions go right down the drain. If it’s confusing to me – an adult – how on earth is a 4 year old supposed to sort it all out?

There is nothing like having a child parrot back EVERY word you say in the tone you say it to make you realize how you speak.   I actually find it kind of amusing that the GRAND generation here is the one that is annoyed that some of their language is deemed inappropriate for children by someone.

I think it’s to be expected that different people have different opinions on acceptable language – just like different people have different opinions on everything.  Often a gray area is words that are close to, but not quite the typical ‘swear’ words, but to some still have the same intended meaning. Think about what happens when anyone ‘swears’ in frustration: You yell out a word to express just how angry/frustrated/upset you are… and then sometimes you feel better. Is that what you want your grandchild to learn?  Why not model better techniques for expressing those feelings?  We know that kids repeat those ‘bad’ words, because of the tone in which they hear them spoken and the reaction they get when they say them.  It’s also normal for kids to try out language.

Another gray area is words such as ‘stupid’.  (We have had our own personal disagreement on this. I polled my parent friends and many feel, as do I, that it is not a word we want to encourage). We always teach kids to treat others the way they want to be treated, and ask them, “How would you feel if someone….?”. Using words that have only negative connotations and which can be demeaning (such as stupid) don’t teach anything positive.  Why not say how you are feeling instead?  I try to teach my son to do this.  Rather than yelling/swearing at someone or some thing, say “I am so ______________ at ______________!!” We do make up substitute words to express frustration…and the silly ones are the best, because they help break the tension and frustration by making us laugh a little.  He has even started making up his own words – which I love – as it shows me he is finding his own way to express feelings.

So, where are we in terms of sorting out ‘what to say, what not to say’?  Is there any common ground here?


Grandparenting is not an armchair activity.  Beyond just serving as role models when it comes to alternatives to swearing, the key is how you – as the grandparent – respond.  And, that’s the real issue here for me.

Let’s start with the choice of alternatives.  ‘Darn’ is a perfectly acceptable alternative to the vast majority of the world.  As are fiddlesticks, shucks, rats, etc.  I get confused as to what the ‘approved’ alternative words are and so does my 4 year old grandson.  Being corrected by him makes me realize how unrealistic and absurd are the restrictions being placed on him – and me, when I am with him.  I know people who are very committed to their religion and NEVER use swear words.  Yet, the word ‘darn’ is perfectly ok with them.  (I asked them!)  As for using the word ‘stupid’, I am referring to a thing, not a person.There has got to be a better solution to this problem than ruling out alternatives-to-swear words that are fine with everyone else.  It’s hard enough for me, an adult, to keep straight.  Not fair to impose that on a four year old.

Second, I want to talk about how my parent’s generation used to over react to children using swear or ‘dirty’ words.  (Does anyone of my generation remember the various punishments doled out, including ‘Wash out your mouth with soap”?)  That was an absurd response and certainly not relative; thank goodness there are better suggestions for responses today! For the vast majority of the previous generations of parents, it never occurred to them to respond any other way.  And I have to admit that when my children were young, it never occurred to me to respond in any way other than reprimand,  discourage and even punish my children for using dirty words or profanity.  I realize there are more appropriate ways to handle this stage that almost every grandparent experiences.  So, I am open to your suggestions, MOM.


I think we are going to have to agree to disagree on this one, but the bright side is I see a very good lesson here! One of the things I am trying to teach my son is that every family/parent/child has different rules and that is okay. My job is to teach him the values and rules that, we as his parents, think are important.  Hopefully we explain, and instill, them in a way that he will stick with them even if others have different standards or behaviors. As he grows up, of course, he’ll figure out some things on his own and make his own decisions.

Our job is to create that foundation. I am personally proud of my son ‘correcting’ others who say words that our family doesn’t find positive, although I have explained to him that it is best done with a nice, “We don’t say that in our house” statement. To me, it shows that he is confident enough in his knowledge of right and wrong to speak up….and I hope that is building a good tool for resisting peer pressure he inevitably will encounter in the years ahead!  To sum up: This is less about judging other’s beliefs than it is teaching your own values and not a black and white ‘say this not that’ solution.  Rather it is an opportunity to teach positive ways to express feelings.


Well, I have to admit that once again MOM has opened my eyes about a better response than I used, when my children were young and uttered profanity or unacceptable language. While we disagree on what is and is not ok to use as alternative words,  the most important lesson for all here is laying the foundation for my grandson to stand up for himself and his beliefs, yet not judging others for theirs.  Kudos, MOM!
Stay Tuned!  We are just a week or so away from announcing our new FACEBOOK page to make it easy for you to join the conversation!  The grand announcement will have details about prizes and surveys and how to add  your voice!
You can email us… Mom: blair@momandgrand.com  Grand: remy@momandgrand.com.  We are the only ones who read our emails.  We respect and will honor your anonymity!

Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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