Benjamin Bergen, professor of cognitive science at the University of California San Diego, recently published What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves. In it, he discusses the topic of children and swearing, debunking the myth of the harm of cursing around children.
Benjamin Bergen: Parental reactions are important because children are fascinated with how their actions, including language, affect us. Where are our limits and what are our buttons? When parents react with strong visible emotions [to cursing], you can bet that’s going to reinforce the behavior. It teaches the child: This is a tool I can use to deflect attention from getting dressed or to throw mom off her game. And what’s more, it teaches the child: This word is powerful. This is all kind of paradoxical because the only way to teach children that these words aren’t that interesting is to refrain from reacting to them.
My wife and I have adopted a pretty specific parenting strategy. It’s OK in our house to swear if you hurt yourself or you’re really excited, but it’s never OK to hurt other people, including with words. We coach our son on the parts of the invisible social world that are hard to pick up. Mommy and Daddy might be fine with him yelling “shit!” when he runs into a table, but we’d be doing him a disservice if we didn’t advise him that his teachers at school might not like to hear that word and that there might be consequences.
BB: There’s pretty clear experimental and correlational evidence that certain uses of language can cause harm to kids, whether said by adults or other children. The two big categories are verbal abuse and slurs. Verbal abuse can be profane but doesn’t have to be. It’s things like intimidation, threatening physical harm and of course denigrating the child — "you’re worthless", "you’re stupid." Slurs are the other group, and being called by sexist, racist and other terms of abuse both demonstrably causes people to become more discriminatory towards marginalized groups and also correlates with decreases in cognitive and emotional well-being — kids called by homophobic slurs, for instance, show a greater increase in reports of depression and anxiety, for instance, through middle school.
On the other hand, the fleeting expletives that accompany a stubbed toe or a touchdown celebration in front of the TV haven’t been shown to cause any sort of similar harm.
So part of the coaching that kids need is the difference between using strong words for personal expression of feelings and the use of those same words or others to harm others. This isn’t too hard for kids to understand.
BB: There’s this funny thing about English profanity. They tend to sound a particular way. Most of our strongest words are one syllable long and end with one or two consonants. And usually those consonants are the hard-stop consonants like “t” or “k” or in the case of “crap,” “p”. As a result, when people make up new swear words, they tend to follow that pattern: “tard,” “sperg” (short for Asperger’s syndrome), “MILF,” and so on. And people also think that even mundane words sound a little dirty when they follow this pattern. Like “moist.” “Crap” follows the pattern — lots of consonants. But “poo” doesn’t. And the reason this pattern exists in the first place might be that the words with lots of consonants at the end are the very ones that kids have trouble pronouncing early on. Infants and toddlers are good at consonant plus vowel, repeated if necessary. That gives you childlike words like “poo-poo” or “wee-wee.” But we’ve crafted profane words to sound a little more adult — can you imagine a 1-year-old pronouncing “crap”?
BB: Like many people of my generation, there was no swearing allowed at home. We were punished for egregious offenses. The lesson I learned: These words were fucking magical.
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