No, son, the F-word actually won’t make your life better

June 1, 2011 | 46 comments

My six-year-old son returned from Yaya‘s house on Monday to report a thrilling discovery: according to the older boys on her street, there is a really, really bad word that starts with F!

His eyes sparkled as he reported this most important of news. “They told me that there’s this horrible word, and it begins with F. I thought I knew what it was — fat — but they said that that wasn’t it. They said that this one is even worse!” He stared off into space for a moment, almost drooling at the prospect of obtaining this information, and added, “I have to find out what it is.”

He started ruminating about ways he could get the boys to divulge this information, but I interrupted him. “Just forget about it, ” I said. “You can talk to the boys about other things, but I don’t want you to ask them about that one word.”

And thus began our own little Garden of Eden drama right there in the living room. The forbidden fruit had been identified by the powers-that-be, and the predictable results followed. My son immediately mistrusted my motives. The more he thought about it, the more the word seemed better and my intentions seemed worse. If he only had this knowledge, his eyes would be opened and he would gain wisdom! His life would be better! Why would his parent keep him from such goodness?

On her old blog, Simcha Fisher once wrote a post about how the knowledge that Adam and Eve gained from eating the forbidden fruit didn’t add anything to their lives. What they gained was sin, and sin always subtracts, never adds. I thought it was an interesting point, but it didn’t quite resonate with me. I was so thoroughly steeped in the worldview that all knowledge is good, that knowing more is always better, that I couldn’t quite understand the concept that some things are better left unknown.

But as I watched my son ponder this issue on Monday, I finally got it. Just like with the original forbidden fruit coveted by the world’s first son, my child was not missing out on anything by not having it, and it was out of love that I designated it forbidden. I can state unhesitatingly (and from a fair amount of personal experience) that the ability to drop an impassioned f-bomb really would not improve his life; in fact, it would make it a little worse. As I watched him sitting there, a ffffff sound escaping from his lips as he reviewed his vocabulary over and over again, it occurred to me that this is, and has always been, one of the most critical battles of the spiritual life: simply to trust our heavenly Parent when he tells us that some things we desire really won’t make our lives better.


  1. Maureen

    This one is a definite share. There is so much I’d much rather not “know”.

  2. Louise

    Oh, this is such a fantastic parallel you’ve drawn here! I’ve thought many times about all the sinful knowledge I’ve gained during my life that I very much don’t want my daughter to have. I find that parenting enriches my understanding of God’s love for us all the time.

  3. Daniel Cox

    The problem with dropping a bomb is even if you only drop one, the resulting explosion is always messy. That’s the nature of a bomb.

    It’s little wonder, then, that we call them “F-bombs.”

    It was a little different for us. My son came home and shared the words friends told him meant “Awesome!” While he didn’t ‘unlearn’ the word, we tried to use humor and honesty to remove some of the power and mystery of the word.

    If my son was in your son’s position, it would end badly. I tell my son “No”, he hears “GO for it son. You can have it!”

  4. Julia at LotsaLaundry

    Funny, I take such a different approach. I’d say, “Oh yeah. That. You want to know what it is? I can tell you, but it’s not all that big a deal. It’s usually used by people who don’t know better.”

    And then I’d tell him what it is, and tell him what it’s a crude term for, and explain that it’s wrong to use crudity to describe something God has designed as beautiful, and ask what people he respects are likely to think of someone who uses that word. And I’d tell him why I choose not to use the word, and why his dad chooses not to use it. And that if, after he’s grown and out of the house, he want to use that word it will be his choice.

    Because unless he knows what using the word would subtract from his life, he’s still going to assume it will add.

    Training my kids to see that what the serpent says isn’t true is important to me. They need to develop that discernment, and I’m not sure it’s possible without developing their critical thinking ability, and their observational skills.

    • Leah @ Unequally Yoked

      I’m with Julia. It seems like the trouble with treating bad words as talismanic, such that even knowledge of them holds power, is that people assume if power exists, it must be theirs to wield. Why not explain what the word means and talk about how embarrassing/ill-bred it would be to use it, now that he knows better. How much worse to discuss it with his friends and put them in a position to go wrong.

      • magda

        Me, too.

    • Chris

      When I was a kid, I first encountered that word written on the side of some playground equipment at the park. I asked my mom what it was and after she gasped she simply said it was a very bad word. That was the end of that.

      But if I knew there was a mysterious powerful word lurking out there somewhere? I think I would be consumed with discovering it, starting with the F page of the dictionary!

      So I agree with Julia – I’d take the magical power out of it. I’d write it down, not say it, say it’s a word some grown-ups use when they’re mad, and some older kids might say to sound cool but that he isn’t allowed to say it. Then I would toss it up and throw it away. If he asked why, I’d say that it’s a grown up angry word that a lot of people think is really ugly.

    • Chris

      When I was a kid, I first encountered that word written on the side of some playground equipment at the park. I asked my mom what it was and after she gasped she simply said it was a very bad word. That was the end of that.

      But if I knew there was a mysterious powerful word lurking out there somewhere? I think I would be consumed with discovering it, starting with the F page of the dictionary!

      So I agree with Julia – I’d take the magical power out of it. I’d write it down, not say it, say it’s a word some grown-ups use when they’re mad, and some older kids might say to sound cool but that he isn’t allowed to say it. Then I would tear it up and throw it away. If he asked why, I’d say that it’s a grown up angry word that a lot of people think is really ugly.

    • Elizabeth Esther

      This is actually how I deal with it, too. By talking about it directly, I quash the power of the word. The secret is what makes it seductive. I like to talk about how words have power—some power is good, some power is bad. Sorta like The Force vs. The Dark Side (to put it in accessible boy language). By exposing the negative consequences of the Dark Side, it loses it’s seduction. Sin is really quite banal and tasteless once you see the detrimental effects it has. I say, just tell your little guy all about the “F” word. I prefer to me the one to give them this knowledge because then I can shape the message, whereas if he learns it from his friends–THEY will be the ones to shape it. Just some thoughts. 🙂

      • Audrey

        That’s a great point–and what sounds like a very logical approach.

  5. Joanna

    Amen! My husband and I often comment to each other that ignorance really is bliss. (Not that we shouldn’t be informed, of course, but there are often times that once we have certain information we really wish we could give it back!)

    As far as Julia’s comment, I can understand her approach but I disagree because a) it doesn’t seem to fit Biblically with how *our* Father does things and b) once you give someone information like this, it does not come back out of their heads. While I agree that a discussion about why we choose to use certain words and not others would be very beneficial, I disagree that we need to be the ones giving them this type of vocabulary. It’s kind of like alcohol – I’m not necessarily going to be the one serving my kids a beer when they get curious just because I know that someone else probably will if I don’t…

  6. Tina

    Oh yes, we are deep in the neck of learning bad words. Thankfully, mine (9, 9, 9, and 8) still think the “s word” is shut up or stupid. They know about h-e-l-l and d-a-m-n, and I’ve had to explain B***h, but am really hoping to hold off on the real s word and the f word. I remember knowing the f word in 5th grade (where we’re headed in the fall). Innocence is an underrated thing, don’t you think?

  7. Tina

    Apparently if you put an 8 before a ), it turns into a sun-glassed smiley. Who knew? My youngest is 8.

  8. willow

    At the age of 6 or 7 I distinctly remember hearing a new use/meaning for the word “screw” that didn’t apply to my own knowledge of the word and asking my mother about it. She told me she’d “tell me later” when I was older. I promptly went to school the next day, asked my friends, received an answer and decided never to use the word. Sometime discernment is a very good thing. My mother never knew I learned the word the very next day after I asked her.

  9. Jenna

    Interesting post! I am really curious how this pans out. Please keep us updated.


  10. Nicole C

    Wow. As someone who has struggled with infertility and recently lost a twin to miscarriage, that last line really hit me. Great analogy, and great post, as always!

    • Jennifer Fulwiler

      Thank you for your kind words, Nicole. I’m so sorry for your loss, and I’ll add you to my prayer list.

  11. priest's wife

    I probably would also tell him what the word is- sort of in a bored way…and say it is rude and a gentleman doesn’t use it and then I would teach him some tongue twisters or something to tell the boys- can you say ‘toy boat’ ten times??? have your boy challenge the others to a tongue twister twist off!

  12. Sandy C.

    I’m stuck on the sweetness of your son thinking the really bad “f” word was “fat”.

    I substitute taught for a high school English class for five weeks this spring and one day a group of my brightest students asked me about a word that starts with a “p” and is used these days to mean “jerk”. One of the students had used the word in another class and got in trouble for it. It took me several minutes to ascertain that the students were not pulling my leg, they really did not know the original meaning of the word. I explained it was an anatomical word and they quickly grasped the meaning without me having to spell it out for them. I was rather pleased to know there is some innocence left in a small corner of the world where teenagers do not know all the bad words I unfortunately know. You are so correct that we gain nothing from sin, we always lose.

  13. Heidi Saxton

    Jen: I so appreciate the connection you draw here, as well as the wisdom of the other moms who have dealt with this issue. My older son has a way of sleuthing out the information he wants and then imparting to his younger sister. (Once he “borrowed” an anatomy text from his father’s office and proceeded to show his sister exactly where babies come from.) The talk that day was to impress upon him the importance of a big brother protecting his little sister from information that is too “old” for her. “Woops,” he said to me. “Guess we’d all better go to confession THIS week!” What a dear.

  14. Kimberlie

    I, too, was struck by the innocence of your son’s thinking the word is “fat.” I have my kids convinced that the words “hate” and “stupid” are the absolute worst things in the world you can say. In fact, we had some interesting conversations in our house lately about words. I put a couple in last week’s quick takes.

    I really was struck by the parallel between original sin and our own desire for that which is forbidden. I see my children struggle with this. I can see them debating, weighing out the potential upside with the potential downside when I tell them they can not do something/have something/say something. I see it in myself. That wanting what we just want and darn the consequences (or just ignoring that there are consequences).

    I also am struck by the thinking about something either adding or detracting from our lives. That is something definitely to ponder.

  15. Laura

    That was a great post Jen

  16. Michelle

    I love this! Thank you for it!

  17. Emily

    I must admit my first impulse would be to ask why he would want to know what this ‘F-word’ was?

    My second impulse with a child that age is that it’s mean to try to get the other boys to say a word that they said is a horrible awful word. It’s wrong to try to get people to do or say things that they think are really bad or things that will get them in trouble.

    I don’t think I’d try to explain that particular word to a six year old particularly since I’ve throughly inhibited myself from actually using it. I’d not likely try to give a full explanation of why bad language is bad at that age unless the child insisted on knowing (at which point they’d get a lecture starting with why we shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain, progressing to loving our neighbour and not using words to hurt them, finally moving to not using ugly or nasty words for private things).

    I don’t believe that my children should be told every thing that they might want to know but I do believe that they should be told why not.

    • Mark

      I don’t understand. How can seeing certain words by taking the Lord’s Name in vain? I know so many people say that swearing is taking the Lord’s Name in vain but I don’t see how it can be, they’re just words to me.

  18. Veronica Mitchell

    About a year ago, I was with my family at a drive-thru ordering breakfast. The woman at the window handed me my coffee, but she had not fastened the lid on, so when I took it in my hand, the lid popped off and hot coffee gushed all over my hand. And while still looking in her eye, I automatically said in response to the pain, “Fffffff.” It didn’t matter that I didn’t finish the word. We both knew what I meant. It was not a proud moment.

    (And oh yeah – I’m blogging again.)

  19. Christine Maentz

    One day when I was about 8 (1965) my best friend who had 5 older brothers proudly announced that she now knew what the “F” word was (we’d had heard it but never really knew what it meant – didn’t really care either), but her mom told her not to tell anyone.

    Of course I ran home & asked my mom & claimed life wasn’t fair because Bonnie knew & I didn’t so my poor mom (who didn’t know better), took me in my room and simply explained what I had witnessed in the neighbors yard the day before. What those dogs were doing.. that was “f”ing. She never explained that it was a word that shouldn’t be said. To be honest, I still didn’t know what they were doing!

    The next day at school I was so proud to put up my hand and tell the teacher & the whole classroom that I saw my neighbors dog’s “f”ing in their back yard.

    Needless to say I was sent to the principals office, immediately received one swat from the paddle & was sent home (yep, they did that back then). I had no idea what I had said! It was years before I finally “got it”!

  20. Tina


  21. Val

    Oh Brother. We tend to make such a big deal out of this kind of thing. I was careful not to swear around my kids, although I certainly did slip up now and then, but when I did, they were shocked! And my kids do the same as teenagers. They never swear, but if it slips out, they know it’s not serious, and so do I.
    If we put too much focus on what NOT to do, then that is all they’ll be interested in.

  22. Paula Gonzales Rohrbacher

    Interesting post, and interesting comments. Personally, I think 6 is too young to know this word. I would have probably done the same thing for my 6 year old, but for an older child, I would have explained what the word was, what it means, maybe talked about Chaucer, and then said that it is not a word used in polite company and that they are not allowed to use it in our house, and that I hope they will not use it at all.

    I have been known to use the F-bomb occasionally (yes, even me, a deacon’s wife!), but I immediately regret it as the sin it is.

  23. Jesse

    I am perfectly sympathetic to those not using this word around kids and polite company. Still, if I am among good friends I have no qualms about using the word casually. Sure, I could not use the word, but its not a sin to use the word, either. What do I gain or lose by using it? Who knows… I don’t comb through every piece of language calculating the minutiae of cost and benefit. It is an expression, neither blasphemous, nor morally detrimental in itself. And I can assure you that I have had a very fine education and I am conscientious of my social etiquette (usually). So using it is not a matter of ignorance for me. That being said, like most other elements of language, its value is relative and it can be rather less benign and harmful. In sum, I don’t use it around kids and polite company. But I don’t agonize over my casual uses of it.

    • Lynn

      Had to chuckle over your distinction between “good friends” and “polite company.”

  24. Anthony S. Layne

    For better or worse, I don’t have any children, so I don’t have to worry (right now, at least) what I would do or relate what I did. But I do like this post for the reflection on the Fall, and how Satan’s promises are truly empty.

  25. syd

    Great post. Did doing those really sinful things in my past life to “live a little” add to my life, make my life better? A resounding NO! It was totally not worth it, and it would have been worth not knowing what everyone else was doing.

    Thanks for sharing.

  26. Ann

    This is so funny. It reminds me of an incident many years ago when our oldest daughter (who is now 47) came home from 2nd or 3rd grade and climbed into her dad’s lap. She told him that the kids at school were using bad language, so he asked her what word they were saying. She got close to his ear, and whispered, “maniac.” Then aloud she said, “They say F…er and other stuff, too.” Currently our 4 year old grandson’s favorite “bad word” is “poopee.”

  27. Susan

    Interesting post and replies! I lean towards the side of facing it head on by telling him what the word is and explaining that it’s not nice and he’s not allowed to use it. As long as the word is locked up in the Forbidden Closet of Mystery (a Simpsons reference), he’ll probably give it more thought than it deserves. Also, you get to control when and where the conversation occurs. When I was a child, I saw the word spray painted on a wall and asked my parents what it meant when there were other people around!

  28. sarah

    Makes me recall the prayer “against the knowledge that defiles” in St. Patrick’s Breastplate.

  29. Kristy

    What a great illustration! I enjoyed reading this.

  30. Alisha

    What a simple, yet profound reflection. Thank you so much!

  31. RantingCatholicMom

    Thank you for protecting innocence in a world so devoted to its demise.

  32. Kelly @ Love Well

    The older I get, the more I believe life’s central question comes back to Satan’s question in the Garden: Is God really good? Could he really be good if he withholds that thing? Could he really be good and allow that suffering? Can you really trust him?

    That is the question that has to be answered affirmatively — sometimes, daily — to live the life of faith.

  33. Judy

    Oh, Ffffffffffiddlesticks…I think you’re right. ::wink::
    Added note: I took the “lure” of the “F” bomb away for my teens by simply explaining that it is an acronym and that most people flailing it about the atmosphere do not even realize this when they are hurling their favorite expletive. Practical and logical as my teens are, they asked what the acronym is, I told them, and they said…”Hmmpffh…that’s kind of stupid”.
    Case closed.
    No worries.
    Moving on.

  34. Moira

    My dad just told me that the word meant an unkind way of speaking of people who sleep together before they were married. To my child’s ears, that made a lot of sense as I already knew that people did that and that it was wrong.

  35. Sarah

    Great parallel! At the same time this made me laugh because as a kid I, too, discovered that there was a word starting with F that was a bad word. I knew it was four letters long, so I found the Dictionary of Slang at our library and went through the entire F section until I figured it out. My mother probably would’ve explained if I’d asked, but I was a little gun-shy from getting my mouth washed out with soap for name-calling :-). Kids…

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