About six weeks ago a local mum told me that her nearly four-year-old had started saying “caca” and “pipi”. These are words used to describe “poo” and “pee” to kids. She said that he was now saying them in response to everything she asked, from whether he wanted a drink to what story he wanted her to read that night.
As Super PG has been at pre-school, or “maternelle” as it’s called in France, since September 2015 – sharing a class with about twenty other three and four year olds – I have been expecting to hear some “gros mots”, the French word for swearing, at some point.
“Crotte” (turd, or how we’d refer to a dog’s poo if you add “de chien” at the end), “zizi” (willy), “les fesses” (bottom) “prout” (fart), these are some of the words that children of this age, who are known as “les tout-petits”, say. It’s something that all children go through on their journey to primary school, or CP (“cours préparatoire”), at six years of age.
Little kids test adults with language
As Super PG is talking far more now and understanding most of the time when to speak more French than English and vice versa, I figured it wouldn’t be long before these words were introduced (with a smirk, probably) into our conversation.
“Swearing appears at a time when the child masters language more finely, usually between three and five years old,” psychologist Nina Cabalo explained to L’Express, a French weekly news magazine. “The child tests adults through language and it soon becomes clear that these swear words have a certain power in his environment. The bigger the reaction, the greater the provocation is likely to be.”
So, I was prepared. But, when it finally happened, I could not have imagined that the words were going to be these: “Caca boudin.”
I had never heard this before and had no idea what it meant. Literally, because “boudin” means blood sausage in French (not always, but mostly), it means “poo blood sausage”. But when I asked my husband what it meant, he told me that it was a swear word that is just for little kids. An adult may use it occasionally, he explained, but it would only be for effect, like if he’s trying to make a joke by responding to something with a baby expletive.
A French swear word just for little kids?
This is so brilliantly French – a special swear word just to help little ones learn about “gros mots”. I can’t think of an equivalent in English, something official that’s traditional in the history of the language. English kids might say something like “poo bums” (I’ve haven’t lived in the UK with kids, so I don’t know for sure) or even start to use some of the adult swear words they’ve heard at this age, but I can’t think of an official swear word that is only for this age group.
How to react? Well, we decided we didn’t want to ban swear words outright, they’re always going to be a part of his life. Better to try and help him understand when to use them. He’s learning about what group he fits into and his identity, so we explained to Super PG what the words meant and told him that if he wanted to use them with his friends and at school to go ahead and do so, but that he mustn’t use it with us, or the teachers, or other adults – just his friends.
“A ban is not the best solution,” explains child psychiatrist (“pédopsychiatre”) Rafi Kojayan on MagicMaman. “A child has the right to say bad words. It depends where, with whom and under what conditions.”
Sometimes he still responds to a question with this special swear word. “Would you like a banana, darling,” I might ask and he’d reply in a funny, growly voice: “Caca boudin, caca boudin.” But now if I give him my “raised-eyebrows” look, he will usually correct himself without me having to say anything and reply with something more lovely (but still often with a silly voice): “Yeah pliz mummy.” Works for me.
The need to define a swearing strategy
I know that there is a family swearing strategy to define here. It’s one that has started already, but it’s very early days. I am guilty of using “gros mots” in front of my kids – they just slip out sometimes – and I’m trying to be better. But the fact is that I’ve always sworn – just hardly ever in front of my parents who are very anti-swearing. They can’t stand hearing “f**k”, even in a movie, and are still traumatised by the moment they first heard me say this word.
“When was it?” asked my husband one night, wondering what age I must have been to shock them so much that they still remember it now I’m 40. “Twenty one,” my father said. We fell about laughing – me and Super H that is, as my dad didn’t see the funny side (I did find the answer a little curious though, thinking that while I always tried to be a “good girl”, surely I must’ve sworn in front of them before my early twenties…).
Once our kids are older and entering teenager-dom, our strategy will have to be very different to where we are right now. This post by Kathryn Leehane, “9 Rules of Swearing for My Children” on Scary Mommy makes me laugh, but it does also present a good case for getting real.
Rule three, for example, reminds kids never to swear at school (I guess this means not to swear at teachers rather than with friends), in front of people they don’t know, or their grandparents (good advice in our household!).
I think I have to acknowledge that as my kids get older they are going to swear, so rather than just telling them not to, and leaving them ill-equipped in the world, maybe it’s better to teach them responsibility for the words they are using. That way they will understand the different meanings they have, the reactions that certain ones attract, and those that shouldn’t be uttered under any circumstances (see rule 8).
Whatever strategy we decide employ it will need to be age appropriate, but the issue of how to deal with the more hardcore swearing is thankfully for a later date. For now dealing with “caca boudin” – and worrying about when “pipi” and “caca” is going to start – is enough.
Thanks for reading.