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.
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
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
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.