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What Would You Do?

Back when I was growing up, there were two kinds of kids: the ones whose parents would allow them to listen to George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” (unedited version) and the ones whose parents wouldn’t allow them to listen to it.  Radio stations had a highly edited version which removed any reference to sex, therefore rendering the song meaningless.  What did George Michael want?  The kids who could only listen to the radio version didn’t know.  Okay, so there were actually three kinds of kids: those who could listen to the unedited version, those who could listen to the edited version, and those who were not allowed to listen to the song in any form as well as the entire Wham! songbook because now “Careless Whisper” was tainted by George Michael’s dirty video.

It’s sort of shocking that this song created such a controversy when it came out.  There are none of George Carlin’s 7 Words You Can’t Say on Television in the lyrics. In fact, George Michael is preaching extremely tame, vanilla-flavoured, monogamous sex between — at least assumed from the video — men and women.  I loved how he wrote on the woman: “explore monogamy” — as if monogamy was this unusual path that no adult took but perhaps might want to try for its titillation factor.

My parents not only allowed me to listen to the unedited version, but we also owned the video.  I had just turned 13 years old when the song came out, and I remember being on the bus for a school field trip that fall.  The kids were talking about the song, taking a poll as to whom was allowed to listen to which version.  A friend of mine informed the group that not only was I allowed to listen to it and sing the lyrics at home, but I was allowed to watch the video and didn’t even have to sneak it.  And even more shocking, any lyrics I didn’t understand, I had questioned and received definitive answers (“What does he mean by boys you can trust and girls that you don’t?”).  Oh we were so innocent back then.

But the point is that while I wasn’t allowed to watch violent films, I was allowed to listen to the Violent Femmes at home (my friend at Hebrew school gave me my first Femmes cassette when I was 10 or 11), Madonna, and George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex.”  As an adult, I appreciate that my parents didn’t make sexuality or words taboo.  It meant that I grew up with a comfortable space where I could ask frank questions and receive frank answers.  I never had to sneak around or be confused or make poor choices.

Fast forward to parenthood.

I’m totally comfortable answering any question the twins throw my way including discussion on how babies are made or come out, body parts, why the Victoria Secret models are wearing such little clothing and why some women want to own such fancy bras.  And yet, I am totally squeamish about playing curse words in front of the kids.  We have a mute button on the steering wheel.  I allow them to play any song they want, BUT I mute out the curse words.

Which is odd because as long as it is just the four of us, they are allowed to use any word they want to use as long as it is not used in anger at another person.  At this age, it isn’t really an issue; though I know that they know curse words because they’ve come to me before to ask what various curse words mean.  They hear them from older kids on the playground and people we’re walking past in the mall. (Yes, when you are saying “fuck that!” into your cell phone, everyone else around you can hear you too.)  I don’t like the concept of “bad words” and wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Carlin:

I love words. I thank you for hearing my words. I want to tell you something about words that I think is important. They’re my work, they’re my play, they’re my passion. Words are all we have, really. We have thoughts but thoughts are fluid. Then we assign a word to a thought, and we’re stuck with that word for that thought, so be careful with words. I like to think that the same words that hurt can heal; it is a matter of how you pick them.

There are some people that are not into all the words. There are some that would have you not use certain words. There are 400,000 words in the English language and there are 7 of them you can’t say on television. What a ratio that is: 399,993 to 7. They must really be bad. They’d have to be outrageous to be separated from a group that large. “All of you over here.  You 7, Bad Words.”

That’s what they told us they were, remember? “That’s a bad word!” No bad words.  Bad thoughts, bad intentions, and words. You know the 7, don’t you, that you can’t say on television? Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, CockSucker, MotherFucker, and Tits. Those are the heavy seven.

As a writer, it’s a dangerous game when you start outlawing words.  Actions, yes.  I can comfortably ban actions from my house such as poking your sister over and over again even as she’s screaming at you to stop touching her.  But words, no.  There are certain times when you need certain words.  They’re not appropriate for all occasions or all company, but when they are needed, there is not another words that will do quite as well.

But as a mother, I feel as if it’s part of my job not to use those words in front of them casually; and that includes playing them in music.  Hence the mute button.  And I feel no qualms about that censorship, especially because I once read an interview with the lead singer of Green Day who admitted that he coughed loudly to cover the curse words in his own music for his kids when they were younger.  If he can censor his own music, I don’t feel badly when I censor it for the time being too.

So we arrive at the situation:

Green Day released three albums this year.  Yay!  We received the first one as a free download with our concert tickets.  The kids were eager to hear the new music.  I listened to it a few times, trying to memorize the location of all the curse words.  Then I played it for them in the car.  And I realized just how many curse words were in there as I hit the mute button over and over again.  And I missed a bunch.  Which made the kids laugh hysterically.  And then I just gave up and took the CD out of the player.

I haven’t purchased the other two albums because I didn’t know what to do.

You see, for the first time ever, Green Day released radio edit versions of all three albums.  No more muting.  So why don’t I purchase those versions, you ask?  Because they’re not done in the same vein as CeeLo Green’s “Forget You” vs. “Fuck You.”  In that case, the “Forget You” version is just as good as the original, and the kids don’t even realize that they’re missing anything.  The Green Day version simply is the same song and someone has garbled the curse words.  It sounds awful.  They are not versions I’d want to listen to on my own.

So muting really isn’t a viable option with these albums (too many curse words).  But the clean versions sound awful to my adult ears.  And I only want to purchase one copy — that’s the limitation we’re working with.  That’s where things stand.

So my options, as I see them (though if you can think of other ones, let me know):

  1. Purchase the clean versions.  Play them in the car for the kids.  No muting necessary.  Grit my teeth and grow to hate the albums.
  2. Purchase the real versions.  Don’t play them at all for the kids.  Own the good versions.  Want to listen to them in the car but be unable to do so.
  3. Purchase the real versions.  Play them without muting for the kids.  Have them hear all these words which aren’t “bad” (as George Carlin points out) but which I feel squeamish playing.  Wonder if I’m noble or should just get over this.

Josh knows which one of those three options he wants to do.  I do not.

Within those three options, for children who are 8 years old and fairly mature (as in, they know better than to use these words at school), what would you do?  And why?


1 magpie { 12.12.12 at 10:22 am }


My 9yo loves it when I put on that original Cee Lo Green song – it makes her think I’m cool or something. We talk about why it’s not a good word for her to say, like at school, but that it’s just a word. (Also, I disagree with you about “Forget You” – I think it just doesn’t scan right and it’s silly as a result.)

Also, I taught her “Do your balls hang low?” just the other day, while we were decorating the Christmas tree. There were low hanging balls!

I tend to curse a blue streak, verbally. In “print”, almost never.

2 Jenny { 12.12.12 at 10:56 am }

I don’t have firsthand experience in this area, so all I can do is tell you about how my niece and nephew were raised. Their parents didn’t censor anything with their kids. But they were taught that certain language and behaviours are unacceptable in certain (or any) circumstances. They were told why a certain thing was said or done and what it meant. They weren’t sheltered or talked down to. They are now 16 and 12 and are both very respectful, sweet, well-mannered kids.

Given that you seem to have a similar parenting style to my brother, I’d say let them listen to the unedited album (if they want to).

3 a { 12.12.12 at 11:03 am }

Um, do they care about this? That’s the first question I would ask myself. If they like Green Day a lot and want to hear their new albums, then the question about which version becomes relevant. I’d still go with option 3, probably, since there is little indication that they will suddenly take up swearing as a hobby.

4 a { 12.12.12 at 11:05 am }

In my house, I have a problem with my daughter using the word “sexy.” She hears it. Her father says it. I do not usually. (Fuck: yep, all the time. Sexy: No) But if she hears “I’m Sexy and I Know It” she is free to sing along. Context matters to me, apparently.

5 Denver Laura { 12.12.12 at 12:26 pm }

I had to laugh at Magpie’s comment as I was teaching my 2 year old “My dingaling” this week.

I saw go with #3. And the concenquence is that if you hear them using words out of context, they get the privilege revoked and the CD gets taken away indefinately.

I grew up watching horror films since I was 2. The deal was if I got scared, I could no longer watch them. I never got scared. My brother did, so I got to watch them by myself as my parents were not really into horror films…

6 Sharon { 12.12.12 at 12:26 pm }

It sounds like your kids are old enough, and mature enough, to (1) have heard these curse words before, and (2) know not to use them in certain contexts.

Given those facts, I’d buy the unedited versions and just play them. What harm? (Apart from making you feel squeamish. . . .)

7 Tiara { 12.12.12 at 12:30 pm }

Based on how important is sounds to be to you that you edit the songs for your kids, Option 1 makes the most sense…you may have to suffer but at least you are staying true to your belief that the twins not hear curse words in their music.

What would I do? Option 3

8 IrisD { 12.12.12 at 12:35 pm }

I must be a bit older than you because I don’t remember it being edited. My parents did not listen to English language popular song stations, so I was not monitored in this way, and I guess I might have been driving by then and heard the unedited version on the radio because I remember it as “I want your sex” and never anything else. But, boy, now that I listen to it again: What a crappy song.

9 Anne { 12.12.12 at 12:41 pm }

My oldest is almost 8. I do option 3 with her since I already swear around her. I’ve been teaching our oldest that there are two rules with swearing.
First, you can only swear after you complete college because by then you will understand all the nuances of swearing. Second, you do not swear in front of people older than you. So, I do not swear in front of my parents, and my daughter knows that she should not swear in front of me. This also prevents her from swearing at school, since the teachers are older than her.

I don’t really have a problem with swearing. I do however do all sorts of contortions to avoid violent songs, movies, tv, or news. That I am phasing in slowly on a need-to-know basis.

10 Sarah { 12.12.12 at 12:43 pm }

OH you are an inspiration….I hope to have the kind of open relationship with my kids. I was allowed to watch MTV, only after throwing a temper tantrum over and over and my parents gave in. I listened to George Michael and honestly don’t remember any radio edits, maybe that’s because I had the real version at home. My mom actually liked the Violent Femmes, she called them the flat people. There was no shame in asking about what this meant or that. Sometimes times my mom was disappointed: Green Day and Nine Inch Nails back to back on the radio sent her on a tirade of masturbating and fucking animals. But we were allowed. We were taught to respect. And yes sometimes you need to use certain words.

I personally would go with option 3. You’ve given them a wonderful base on which to grow. By doing this, you’re giving them an opportunity to learn more and possibly learn about consequences of their actions. That’s what I would do. But my kid is 1 and listens to the unedited versions of everything including my mouth, which is probably the worst offender.

11 k { 12.12.12 at 12:51 pm }

We don’t censor music. My kids know there are words adults can say (curse words) that they cannot because it’s simply inappropriate. But they hear them. I don’t like when they are directed AT them, (as in it isn’t ok in my house to say “go the fuck to your room”) but I have no problem with them being said around them. I loathe the word “stupid” much more so than the word fuck or shit being used in my kids’ presence.

There are unacceptable words for anyone to say in my house, (for example “retard” or “retarded.”) As far as I’m concerned there are certain words that aren’t ok because their very nature is inflammatory or hurtful (racial slurs would be included here). We can talk about them as words and why they are hurtful and why they are never ok (when words like fuck and shit are ok), but I do draw the line at using them.

I would go with option 3. You’re so open with them about everything else, why water down their music? If you aren’t comfortable with them hearing it, then just completely take it off the table.

12 missohkay { 12.12.12 at 1:22 pm }

This post is interesting to me because my mom was enough out-of-touch with pop culture that she wouldn’t have known to censor songs. I had a secret tape (labeled with an X so I knew which one it was) where I had dubbed Wild Thing, Funky Cold Medina, and I Want Your Sex. I also specifically remember censoring songs *for my mom* in the car, by asking her to turn the radio off or coughing my way through “Damn, I wish I was your lover.” 🙂

13 lifeintheshwa { 12.12.12 at 2:06 pm }

Take this from the mother of a 4 year old who sings (and dances to) sexy and I know it. He learned it at daycare and really? He enjoyed it so much I downloaded it to my phone so he can sing it in the car. Funny the “Christian” kids music I’ve bought for him had more objectionable stuff in it to me and I tend to skip a few numbers there. I’ve let a few curse words slip by on me and he’s repeated them, because that’s what 4 year olds do… but he knows mummy shouldn’t really be saying those words. I’m guessing, though, if your kids laugh when you mute the songs they probably know the words being muted so why. (from the kid whose dad used to fast forward any sex scenes in movies)

14 Queenie { 12.12.12 at 5:59 pm }

These comments are so fascinating to me. Music was never censored in my house, nor was anything else. I read The Color Purple when I was about 11. My mother saw that I had taken it out from the library, and it was the only time she ever weighed in. She said she “preferred” that I did not read it, but left it up to me. Of course I read it. But, there was no room in my house for discussion about it. I think #3 plus discussion is your best option. Why so squeamish?

15 Cherish { 12.12.12 at 7:30 pm }

Given the background information you provided, I would go with #3 and a little explanation as to why you’re doing it.

16 Chickenpig { 12.12.12 at 11:01 pm }

I don’t get why you just can’t have the same conversation you had with us with them. My mother had a conversation with us all at a young age about swearing, when it’s appropriate and when it isn’t. And how swearing is a form of expression. Swearing in rock music is there for a reason, it isn’t extraneous, it is just the emotions turned up LOUD. How can you really hear Green Day without the emotions turned up LOUD!? Just get over it, I say. Your kids aren’t going to grow up to be spitting, swearing, uncouth adults…trust me 🙂

17 Justine { 12.12.12 at 11:15 pm }

My entire childhood was censored. So I try not to censor anything with my kids. Interesting, though … just recently, my six year old began to discover The Words … and has been trying to understand what’s so bad about them. I don’t like him using them even at home, because I don’t think he’s old enough/mature enough to know how they can be emotionally charged, how they can be shorthand for degrading another human being … but I do try to talk with him about not throwing away his words. Your kids can probably handle hearing the words … and the more we allow them to hear those words with our supervision, the less charged they become, I guess. So, option 3. Though in real life, at this point, I’d probably go with option 4 and chicken out of buying the albums entirely. 😉

18 Ellen { 12.13.12 at 12:19 am }

Door #3. Time to get over the squeamishness – it’s not going to get any better in the next few years, so why not move on when there is a specific good reason to? My husband and I never use “swear” words – one of the things that we find attractive in each other. Our children(8 and 10) have grown up with the attitude that we disdain that sort of language as being unprofessional and unbecoming to smart, well read people.

The children have been educated openly as to what these words mean and basically how and why people use them. We have specifically told them that while we expect them to not use such language around adults, that within their peer group, they are free to judge for themselves what is appropriate. The key is, no adults within hearing. In their peer groups, particularly in the ten year old’s, there is a LOT of open swearing. Ours so far have chosen to keep it away from our ears.

19 Baby Smiling In Back Seat { 12.13.12 at 1:37 am }

For your kids? Absolutely #3.

I encountered this very problem yesterday for the first time: I decided to start Burrito’s comprehensive Radiohead education, album by album. They’ve heard many individual Radiohead songs but not the full catalog. Starting with Pablo Honey. Oops, forgot about Creep. “You’re so fucking special.” Unlike your twins, mine are not old enough to do anything but parrot what they hear indiscriminately. So I guess in the future I will either skip Creep or download the radio version. Of course they’re not old enough to understand self-loathing either, so I guess I will skip it. Luckily most of Radiohead’s other lyrics are either non-objectionable or unintelligible.

20 Battynurse { 12.13.12 at 6:32 pm }

So not a parent and not totally sure my asks vice counts but I lean towards #3. I swear, sometimes a lot. I always figured if I had children there would be some teaching about mommy words or words not spoken in front of others but my kids swearing in general wasn’t going to be something that pushed me over the edge. But teaching that repetition of those words in front of other parents may have drastic and possibly unpleasant results would happen. Interestingly enough I remember in jr high my 2 BFFs regularly reciting George Carlins 7 non TV words and I think some of them noe can be used on TV! Pretty sure I’ve heard shit on USA after 9pm.

21 FrozenOJ { 12.13.12 at 8:40 pm }

I saw let them here them, but I have an unorthodox view of “bad words”. I don’t say them myself but I have no idea why people *shouldn’t* say them. Or if people shouldn’t say them, people shouldn’t say them, it shouldn’t be limited to kids. I get why kids can’t drive, join the military, smoke, drink, actually have sex, but words? How is that going to damage them? They can say just as mean and awful things with words that are “okay”.

22 clare { 12.15.12 at 6:42 am }

I just emailed you.. if you want a tech solution, here is a post the describes how you can edit out the sections yourself if you want… there are songs I really love to listen to, but won’t in certain contexts (like driving around other people’s preschoolers). In the past I’ve just skipped those tracks, but now maybe I’ll take 5 minutes for my fav songs and just silence out the trickier words.

But for the record, I really love your nuanced and thoughtful approach to this. I lean on the side of letting kids be exposed to such music… with conversations about when and where it is appropriate. I’d lean on the side of letting them hear them, but if they want to help you edit a version for more public listening (or when people are over who strongly prefer not to be exposed to these words), you could make it a group project!


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