How Do You Tackle Swearing When Writing For Children?

The Tricky Task of Writing for Children

The Tricky Task of Writing for Children

This morning I’ve been researching the interesting world of swearing, for my MG fiction book. This is the first time I’ve written for pre-teens and I hadn’t realised how many mild swear words litter my writing, or how different words have different shock values depending on the country.

For example bloody hell and bugger off probably wouldn’t cause too much consternation in the UK, although there is obviously more impact on the written page than in the spoken word. I don’t think anyone would bat an eyelid at crap or oh my god or good heavens. But then I come from a non religious family and I’m sure the latter two would worry religious families more.

Interestingly my children are more shocked by ‘rubbish’ and ‘stupid’ than ‘shit’ because we as a family have given the words more power, although I do try and distinguish between saying ‘that shot was rubbish’ and ‘you’re rubbish’. I’m not even going to discuss the reaction I got from nursery when my son repeated my stressed-out-end-of-tether phrase ‘shut up!’ to another child. Let’s say they would have been less disapproving if he’d said f-off. Maybe.

Swearing, after all, is all about shock value. You only had to see my unfortunate and accidental (and instantly-regretted) reaction when my daughter mispronounced ‘can’t’ during a recent reading session. Having to explain why even Mummy wouldn’t use that word probably gave her the ultimate weapon against me. But I digress.

Some level of exclamation is needed when writing, to show emotion and make dialogue sound realistic. Unfortunately I don’t yet have Tweens, so I don’t know what they say when they’re upset/shocked/scared/angry. And I’m sure what they say to each other isn’t what their parents want to see them reading in a children’s novel.

Scouring several websites this morning, it seems the safest thing to do is to make up your own swear words. But how to do so without sounding twee? In Elizabeth Kay’s lovely book, Ice Feathers, she uses phrases like ‘for the Wind’s sake’ and ‘flapping’. Unfortunately they make me think of all the phrases I hear on Cbeebies like ‘galloping guinea pigs’ and ‘flapperty flippers’, ‘jumping jellyfish’, or, my favourite, ‘Well, I’ll be a sea monkey’s uncle.’

I think I will use foodie words for my male protagonist, as he loves cooking. Things like ‘fried tomatoes’, ‘pancakes and crepes’ and possibly ‘shiitake mushrooms’ although apparently that’s from a Spy Kids movie and I don’t want plagiarism issues. My female lead is a fairy and lives in the woods, so phrases like ‘eggshells’ and ‘creeping caterpillars’ might work. Is ‘bird poo’ too much? I’m sure I’ve borrowed books from the library for under fives that have the words poo and pants. Does it become unacceptable if Mummy isn’t reading it?

Who knew writing for children was so much harder than writing for adults, especially when you’ve had a colourful upbringing. Well, me actually. But it will be worth the effort I hope!

What are your favourite non-swearing cuss words? What do you let your children say and not say?

Related Articles:

Bob and Jack’s Writing Blog: Danika Dinsmore ~ Tropes & Tips for Middle Grade Fiction Writers

From the Mixed-Up Files… Of Middle Grade Authors: Is it Okay to Curse in MG Books

AbsoluteWrite: Acceptable Swear Words for Children?

17 thoughts on “How Do You Tackle Swearing When Writing For Children?

  1. That can be quite a challenge when you feel that no other words and supply the same impact swearing can provide. LOL
    I “try” do not swear at home because of the kids so that’s why my blog is littered with them hahaha.
    One thing that I cannot stop myself from saying whenever I get totally surprised is something that’s not very good to hear is equivalent to “horse’s vagina” in English. So classy. Pfft.

  2. I would think most middle grade kids have heard all the bad words by now, and wouldn’t be bothered by reading a few in appropriate places. As for using a milder word, well, the reader probably is ‘thinking’ the stronger version, anyway. If you go for making up one, you could go with something outlandishly funny, and maybe have it be a sort of trademark word for that character. Best of luck, Amanda!

  3. My children are only 1 and 2 so I am no help for you on what the tween cuss words may be right now either. I remember as a teen we would say things like “frick” around our parents. This way we were kind of “cussing” yet didn’t get in trouble for it. 🙂

  4. This really resonates with me. 🙂 My books are suitable for anyone but aimed, principally, at teenagers, so I went the make stuff up route and came up with the word ‘Smeck’. I also invented a religion so they could indulge in endless profanity around the name of their Prophet, Arnold – Arnold’s trousers, Arnold’s y fronts etc. you’re right though it’s really hard. Otherwise, I think that sometimes, if you put the right words together it can sound rude. The parrot in my book says ‘wipe my cankers’ which sounds filthy but isn’t. I’m sure you could do something along those lines for your fairy. Perhaps with acorns or hedge fruit. 🙂



  5. Pingback: Women’s Cycle Tour and On a Writing Roll | writermummy

  6. Hi Amanda, thanks for linking to my article on Jack and Bob’s site. I’m not sure about the allowances/difference between UK and North America, but I agree that the safest thing to do is to make up your own swear words. Since I write mostly genre fiction, it’s easier. For my fantasy it’s bog buggers and hag worms. In a sci fi story I had a character call another a blasthole. I love Scott Westerfeld’s LEVIATHAN series in which he uses “barking spiders!”

  7. My own crew like to test the limits now and again by saying things like bucking fastards! Well, it’s not really swearing…but I still react. Which is a bit hypocritical as I swear much more now than I ever did. It’s like a release valve. Did someone else already say friggin’? And good old Irish feckin’ does it for me without it being too offensive.
    I’m still reading Dragon Wraiths and that raises a different question for me. But kind of similar. How did you decide on the level of ‘appropriate’ sexuality? I could see this book being read out in school then I came to the more intimate parts between the two and wondered which age it suted best. I’m thinking here of secondary school kids as I know I wouldn’t get away with reading that in primary…although a lot of kids at upper primary could.probably relate and, given what they receive in sex ed, it shouldn’t be shocking. Might even be educational. But I did wonder. I could see my 12-18 year olds reading it and have already recommended it to them. But did you take guidance on this or decide yourself?
    Sorry for the long question but I am interested.x

    • I love feckin’ (from watching Mrs Brown’s Boys) 😉

      I did wonder if you’d given up on Dragon Wraiths (paranoid, much?) I’m glad you’re still reading (and hopefully enjoying) it.
      I did think about how much detail I was putting in regarding sexuality but I admit I never thought about it being read out loud in class. I don’t think we ever studied a modern novel when I was at school! And, to be honest, I never really thought anyone would read it… 🙂 But I tried to remember how racy books were that I read as a teenager. I suspect my memory isn’t very reliable, though. I suspect also what I didn’t know when I wrote it, that I do now, is that children tend to read about protagonists a few years older than themselves so, if anything, I might make Leah 18 rather than 16 as it’s definitely YA not MG. if your children do read it I would love to know their thoughts (good and bad) as I don’t know anyone who has read it who is actually target market. I’m also trying to find guinea pigs for my current novel!

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