It's perfectly fine to use the S-word

It is an inelegant word, but when used as an exclamation, it is to me neither rude nor an expletive

The teacher of one of my two daughters called me recently, to tell me my child had said a "bad" word in school.

Instantly, my mind went "Uh-oh", although it was a lot less innocuous than that, so I could understand where or whom my daughter might have inadvertently picked up her vocabulary from.

I was glad the teacher was assiduous and caring enough to call me about it. But when I found out the word my daughter said was "S**t", a sigh of relief silently escaped me, along with a thought bubble above my head that read: "S**t, that's it?"

Among the four-letter words I have regretfully and unintentionally introduced to my two primary school-age children, it ranks near the bottom of the list, if it makes the list at all.

In my opinion, it is an inelegant word perhaps, but it is neither rude nor an expletive, unless it is hurled at someone as an insult. (But this newspaper sanitises the word with asterisks to avoid offending those who think differently from me.)

For the record, my daughter did not call any of her classmates anything close to "turd", "excreta", "poop" or "faeces"; she had exclaimed the S-word in disappointment or frustration, the way you might go "Alamak!" if you had just missed the bus and had to wait another 15 minutes for the next.

Among the four-letter words I have regretfully and unintentionally introduced to my two primary school-age children, it ranks near the bottom of the list, if it makes the list at all.

If others say my daughter's use of the word is evidence of bad parenting, then I say "Phooey", we're no longer in Victorian England. Nor are we living in a world where it's preferable to say "restroom" instead of "toilet" because it is vulgar to draw attention to the body and its emissions.

For a brief moment, however, I had dodged that bullet of being accused of bad parenting because my daughter, when questioned by her teacher, said she learnt to say the word from her sister, who was, of course, the hapless scapegoat.

Then I proceeded to put my foot in my mouth, letting the teacher know my thoughts on the S-word. She seemed stunned, recovering a little when I added: "But I know there are others who think it a rude word and I have told my daughters not to use it in school."

Later that day, my wife gave me an earful. "Why did you say that to the teacher? Couldn't you just have left it at 'Sorry, I shall tell her not to use the word?'"

In my defence, I'm honest to a fault; I try always to say what I mean and mean what I say in social situations as well as at home with my children. And if I can't speak my mind for any reason, then I'd rather not open my mouth, as my tongue can be both a blunt and a sharp instrument at the same time.

A few weeks before the teacher's call, the same thing had happened with the same daughter and the S-word among our church friends, and I had said the same thing: as an exclamation, the term is not rude to me.


Not me. I make no excuses for myself or my daughters (in fact, both of them utter the S-word).

Instead of offering chastened apologies, I use both incidents as teaching moments, to explain to my girls how our values, beliefs and practices at home may differ from those of others, and when they do differ, to discern for ourselves when to accommodate others and make compromises for the sake of harmonious relations, and when to stand our ground.

When I spoke to my daughter after the call from the teacher, I reiterated my stance on the S-word, but suggested that she could maybe exclaim another word instead.

"How about 'shucks'?" I ask.

Immediately - and gleefully - my other daughter interjected: "That's worse! It's a combination of the S-word and the F-word!"

I won't even try to feign innocence or ignorance as to how she is acquainted with the F-word. I studied at all-boys schools for a decade and served my nation for more than two years with the saltiest of soldiers, so I am well-versed in cuss words, a fact colourfully illustrated to my children on one occasion when a taxi driver in Perth dropped us off at a location more than 2km from our intended destination.

Of course, my daughters don't think I'm a saint - they know I am often in the wrong because I tell them as much and apologise profusely for whatever misdeed I've committed, whether it's yelling, losing my patience or using the F-word.

I'm pleased my daughters don't drop F-bombs, which are still widely frowned upon and which I have emphasised repeatedly is a "really bad word" because it is often used in anger, as an insult and/or as a provocation.

When they are older, I shall probably have that talk with them where I explain how some people - many of them rappers and other music stars - use F-bombs to appear cool and why we should not go down that slippery path of copying others to be with the trendy crowd.

For now, it is good enough for me that they learn to be considerate of others who think differently from us.

We don't have to agree with others all the time and when we don't, we have to learn to respectfully agree to disagree.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 16, 2017, with the headline 'It's perfectly fine to use the S-word'. Print Edition | Subscribe