My toddler daughter loves many things: her stuffy, ketchup, squishing her toes in the mud, and, of course, the lobster tank at the local grocery store. Last week, while doing our regular shopping, she excitedly pointed at the tank because she wanted to press her nose up against the glass and chat with her beloved crustaceans. As we were pointing out the different shades of blues and oranges of the shells, I noticed one was dead. My daughter’s response? “Oh, damn it! He dead, mama!”
I believe in letting my kids swear — but my husband hates it, and we often butt heads about it. He believes that children shouldn’t speak rudely (and I totally agree), he thinks that kids should learn proper verbal manners (and I totally agree), and he thinks that kids swearing is crude. That’s where my parenting philosophy bangs a sharp left.
Swearing serves a purpose in society. It’s taboo because when someone swears, it is meant to be shocking — to have power. When I stub my toe and it hurts really freaking bad, I drop an F-bomb because releasing that word somehow makes me feel better. When people are in heated arguments and someone swears, it’s a signal that civility is out the window and the fight is entering dangerous territory.
Science backs me up on this. Swearing, as it turns out, really does help change the energy of a situation — by either amping it up or diffusing it altogether. In 2017, Sage Journal reported on a study that demonstrated that people who swear are more truthful than those who don’t. Swearing is also shown to relieve pain and build pain tolerance, as Emma Byrne describes in her 2018 best-selling book, Swearing Is Good For You.
In an excerpt of her book, Byrne describes a lab experiment in which psychologist Richard Stephens, author of Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad asked 67 undergraduates from Keele University in Staffordshire, England to dunk their hands in ice water and leave them there for as long as they could. It turned out that those who swore like salty sailors were able to withstand the pain of freezing temperatures for 50% longer than those who didn’t swear. Pain, science shows, isn’t just physical; it’s also mental, and having the skills to shift a perspective on pain can increase one’s ability to deal with it.
And it’s not just physical pain that can be manipulated through swear words. Kids need to be able to put themselves in dangerous (within reason) situations so they can problem-solve on how to get back out. Take, for example, the recent movement toward stepping away from “helicopter parenting” (and “lawnmower parenting“) in favor of letting kids play with actual dangerous things.
My husband’s fear is seated in the worry that our kids will start cussing people out willy-nilly. His uneasiness is warranted; our kids aren’t really old enough to know the boundaries of language yet. They kind of get it, but it’s only a matter of time, my husband says, before one of them calls an adult an “asshole” to their face. But that’s sort of the point. In our house, we don’t swear at our kids, and we don’t pepper our regular language with swears — because we are modeling how to speak. But I don’t censor myself when a much needed “oh shit!” moment happens, either. Our kids have to navigate the real-life linguistic “dangers” of swearing just like they have to assess physical risk when playing.
Have you heard of NYC’s Adventure Playground, a 50,000-square-foot dirt playground with nails, hammers, boards, piles of construction debris, tires and more? It looks like a junkyard — and kids love it. The only rule? Parents aren’t allowed in. Kids make the rules — including risk assessment.
Swearing is a lot like this playground; kids drop a four-letter word, and they have to navigate the consequences of their words with real-world responses. For my toddler, those consequences included a shocked look from the fishmonger — but also a chuckle, because let’s be real, little kids who drop a swear are kind of funny.
Kids swearing, when I was growing up in the 1980s, was less of a big deal. Parents either didn’t care as much, or they were just not as glued to their kids’ every movement and utterance as parents seem to be today. Just look at pop culture to see what I mean: In the movie ET, the kids say “penis breath” and no one cares (my husband did, though, when we watched the movie with our 8-year-old). In the movie the Goonies, the kids drop all kinds of colorful language, including drug references, sexual innuendos, and straight four-letter bombs (my husband was not happy with this one either).
Yes, swearing is somewhat taboo — as it should be. If cuss words are used constantly, they lose their power — and their magic. But I contend that if my kids are going to figure out how to swear in an appropriate way, then they ought to have a safe place to experiment with their language, and that place is in our family. My husband’s brain might itch at this sentiment, but I firmly believe it.
Some parents say that, if and when their teens want to experiment with drinking a beer or smoking a joint, they’d rather they do it at home where a parent can supervise — or at least mitigate the dangers. The idea is that they can help their kid see why drinking and smoking weed isn’t somehow “evil” but does come with serious consequences that they can talk about together as a family to set boundaries. Swearing, I believe, should be treated the same.
Words matter. Swearing is a powerful fringe margin of the English language that makes some people squirm and others delight in their stiletto tongues. I want my kids to know when and how to use cursing in an empowering way that helps them to express their ideas and needs without hurting others. The only way to do that is to guide them at home through modeling our own behaviors — and through lots of discussions.
So, while my husband may cringe at the sound of our toddler saying, “Oh, damn!” he can rest assured that there is nothing lazy or misguided about my firm stance that her swearing is a fantastic learning opportunity that will serve her well. Besides, there are far worse things our kids can say than a swear word — and we should be talking to them about those things, too.