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Common sense tells us that it's not a good idea ever to argue in front of infants. A growing body of scientific research tells us why.

The first words of a child in my family, despite the best efforts of that child's parents to provide an emotionally supportive home, were "F--- you." To this the mother replied, "I would have preferred 'Mama.'"

Taking the baby's utterance as a cue to conduct conversations differently, however, my older relative made a hard and fast rule of "Not in front of the children" for angry and off-color speech, and 30 years later the baby whose first word was an expletive is a healthy and well-adjusted adult. (Well, mostly.)

What is it about the use of angry and off-color language around babies that is so harmful to their future emotional development? And how can parents compensate for their mistakes? The answers to these questions are easier to understand after a little review of how infants acquire language.

Language Is More Than Words

Scientists theorize that infants learn language not so much word by word as boundary by boundary. After all, there's no way to tell an infant "This is a word." The infant has to some how figure how that language comes in tiny packages known as words and different words have different meanings.

In the process of figuring out where the boundaries in speech lie, however, the infant listens to more than just the words themselves. Babies are aware of rhythm, pitch, and the emotional context of speech (or signing). They respond the content of language holistically before they learn how to parse one word from another.

Simpler Language Isn't Necessarily Easier Language for Babies

I have a distinct, and, I think, real memory of my mother speaking to me as an infant. "Hippopotamus, Baby, can you," my mother never used baby talk, "say 'hippopotamus'?" 

I couldn't say "hippopotamus." However, when my mother, who had a second major in French in college, read me "Il n'est jamais sorti sans livre sous son bras, et il est souvent revenu avec deux," ("He never went out without a book under his arm, and he often came back with two") from Les Misérables, I understood what she was saying. This 30 years was before the musical, when reading the Victor Hugo novel to one's American infant in French in an English-speaking household was considered unusual Nonetheless, something in my brain immediately understood what she was saying and I can recall it more than 50 years later, even though I never became fluent in French.

A baby's brain is hard-wired to understand real, fluent, spontaneous speech better than single words spoken out of context. It doesn't even matter what language they are spoken in, if they are spoken with an identifiable context. When the affect (the sound) of speech is angry, violent, or threatening, however, the baby's brain works overtime. 

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Graham AM, Fisher PA, Pfeifer JH. What Sleeping Babies Hear: A Functional MRI Study of Interparental Conflict and Infants' Emotion Processing. Psychol Sci. 2013 Mar 28. [Epub ahead of print]
  • Graham AM, Ablow JC, Measelle JR. Interparental relationship dynamics and cardiac vagal functioning in infancy. Infant Behav Dev. 2010 Dec. 33(4):530-44.
  • 10.1016/j.infbeh.2010.07.005. Epub 2010 Aug 19.
  • Photo courtesy of russrobinson on Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/russrobinson/4448566080

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