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The intersection of parenting and swearing can probably best be described as "controversial", with most people holding strong opinions. Do you allow your children to swear?

Today's topic sits at the intersection of two topics most people have rather strong opinions about — parenting and swearing (or cussing, profanity, and as one scientific paper described it, "a form of linguistic activity utilizing taboo words to convey the expression of strong emotions"). 

A discussion with fellow parents I recently took part in reveals just how controversial this topic can be, as the following opinions were on display — some more nuanced, some less, and some that included swear words, which I'll redact here:

  • "I don't have a problem with swearing unless it's directed at someone — it's OK to swear when you stub your toe or step on a Lego, it's not OK to tell your brother to f*** off". 
  • "Swear words are allowed in our family, but insults aren't."
  • "Calling someone ugly or stupid is so much worse than saying ****."
  • "I feel swearing is wrong, especially for young children."
  • "Kids will swear anyway, so I explain which swear words I don't like and why in the hope that they'll choose carefully."
  • "Swearing is like being naked — natural but reserved for private situations."
  • "It's not classy and my children aren't allowed to use those words."
  • "Swearing is a very lazy use of language."
  • "It's a matter of respect for others. I do not allow my children to swear."
  • "I am a Christian. Swearing is unsavory and we don't do it."
  • "I swear. Of course my kids swear too."
  • "You can say the most hate-filled things without ever using a swear word, and the nicest things while swearing like a sailor. I don't have an issue with swear words as such."

And then there's me — I think swear words can be powerful and even therapeutic, and I don't give a **** if my children swear, which they do. There are words I am not cool with, however, and they fall into the category of racist, sexist, and ableist slurs. Like many other parents, I'm not a fan of swearing at people, rather than at a situation that sucks, and we indeed do not swear around people we know would be offended by it. I see this as the golden middle way, but I know people are going to disagree, and that's OK. 

One thing I noticed while talking to other parents about their perspective on swearing is that most came into the debate with fully-formed feelings on the topic that were largely shaped by their own cultural environments. Some had reasons for liking or disliking swearing, but many "simply felt the way they did" without putting much thought into it. Few people sit on the fence, using scientific resources to determine whether they're going to allow their children to swear or not. The relevant parenting question is, as such, not so much "to swear or not to swear?", but rather — how are you going to deal with what you already decided? 

Because we have to: What research says on the topic of swearing

Some of this is purely informative, but some myth-busting is also involved:

  • Research shows that it takes time for English learners to figure out in what contexts swearing is and isn't appropriate. It isn't too much of a stretch to assume that the same holds true for children. If you live in a swearing household and have young kids, they may blurt out some of those gems when you'd really least like them to. 
  • Because swearing and dishonesty are both considered socially undesirable, some people have acquired the impression that those who swear more are also more likely to lie. This is not true, research has found; folks with a larger "taboo word" vocabulary are statistically less likely to lie. 
  • If you know swear words, you may use them involunarily — research shows that people simply blurt out swear words in tough situations like accidentally hurting themselves, rather than consciously choosing to. (Remember, if your kids don't acquire these words from you, they probably will elsewhere; something to keep in mind if you discipline your children for swearing.)
  • People do not use swear words because they can't come up with different ones — research demonstrates that knowing more swear words is correlated with having a higher vocabulary in general. Swearing is, as such, certainly not necessarily a lazy use of language; people who swear have plenty of other options to choose from, but decide swear words express their feelings best in that situation. 
  • Swear words are indeed more appealing because they are taboo, but they also tend to have certain audio qualities that make them sound good to many ears. 

Parenting and swearing: What to do if you're anti-swearing

This one's pretty simple, really — explain why you don't like swearing, expect your children to be exposed to it anyway in the outside world and come up with a way to handle that fact, and put in place some consequence if they do swear.

Explaining what certain words mean can be a crucial part of this, as children will use words they know are taboo but that sound good to them even if they are not sure what those words mean. "This one refers to the act of sexual intercourse", and "that one is a derogatory name for a female body part" will quickly stop many young kids in their tracks. 

If you have religious reasons for disallowing swearing, or cultural reasons, or you are triggered by swear words, say so. Understanding your reasons will often help children embrace your guidance, much more than "because I say so" will. 

When your children swear anyway, you can handle it like you would any undesirable behavior, whether that's time-out, the removal of privileges, or a talk, in your home. You may also like to come up with alternatives that are OK for your family; things like "fudge" or "sugar". 

Parenting and swearing: If you're a cuss-word loving family

Parents who swear themselves and believe it to be a form of language that can be expressive, appropriate, and satisfying at times also don't face that much of a challenge. Tell your children which words you're not cool with and why, and impose consequences if they use them anyway. Explain in what contexts swearing is and is not allowed, why some people are opposed to swearing and may be especially taken aback by children who swear, and get on with your lives.

This is my personal approach, and it has worked well in our family; my children naturally do not swear around people they've never heard swearing, stay away from swear words in more official contexts, and do not use slurs that hurt particular social groups. 

In conclusion

Language is a colorful tool. As parents, teaching our kids to use it fluently and in ways that are acceptable within our particular (sub-)cultures is part of our job. Whether you swear or not, and whether you mind it if your kids do or not, you'll certainly all be exposed to those on the "opposite side of the aisle", so discussing the impact of swearing in a conscious way is probably a good idea.

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