This is Cindy (name has been changed to protect the innocent), recounting one of her earliest memories. “I was in the car with my mom and dad. We were in Boston, probably in traffic. Maybe trying to get on a roundabout? Anyway, Dad suddenly said, ‘Don’t do it, c*cks%cker.’”
“What’s a c*cks%cker?” I asked. Mom answered. “Dammit, Ken.”
Cindy’s memory is like many childhood reveries: fuzzy, yet strangely specific. And the main message from it? Profanity. Her parents cursed constantly. She learned to curse from them. But there were no repercussions for her, either at school or later at work, because she understood set and setting. It’s now just a funny anecdote, told at foul-mouthed family reunions.
So, what are the actual rules involving cursing in front of your child? And what are the repercussions?
How Do Children Learn to Swear?
This sounds like such a common-sense question. It seems obvious a child learns from parents, peers and schoolmates cursing in front of them. But the reality is more complex.
The Association of Psychological Science wrote all about the actual science of swearing. Merely hearing parents and peers say the words isn’t the same thing as understanding them. Many children mimic. It’s not until later that context and usage take on form.
“By the time children enter school, they have a working vocabulary of 30 to 40 offensive words,” the report said. “We have yet to determine what children know about the meanings of the words they use. We do know that younger children are likely to use milder offensive words than older children and adults, whose lexica may include more strongly offensive terms and words with more nuanced social and cultural meanings.”
The report went on to totally downplay the impact cursing has on everyday life.
“Swearing can occur with any emotion and yield positive or negative outcomes. Our work so far suggests that most uses of swear words are not problematic. We know this because we have recorded over 10,000 episodes of public swearing by children and adults, and rarely have we witnessed negative consequences. We have never seen public swearing lead to physical violence. Most public uses of taboo words are not in anger; they are innocuous or produce positive consequences (e.g., humor elicitation).”
Still, that doesn’t mean you want your kid to swear like a sailor. Context matters. And teaching context is a parent’s job.
Cursing in Front of a Child… And in Everyday Life
There’s a surprising amount of academic scholarship devoted to the act of uttering oaths. One of the most famous was published last year in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
The much-touted study, entitled Frankly, We Do Give a Damn, used a bunch of very sophisticated statistical analysis to come up with this conclusion: people who swear are considered more honest.
“We found a consistent positive relationship between profanity and honesty; profanity was associated with less lying and deception at the individual level and with higher integrity at the society level,” the study’s authors wrote.
Makes one wonder if Honest Abe had a potty mouth.
Then there are the other benefits of swearing. The Journal of Sports and Exercise found cursing on the court led to better performance and, “showed to increase power in acts of physical performance and strength.” Another study found profanity raised pain tolerance.
Picking the proper, and perfect, epithet has even been correlated with greater intelligence. There’s often the assumption people curse because they lack the “proper words” to express themselves. But the journal Language Sciences found that just ain’t so.
Language proficiency turns out to be valid whether you’re cussing out another driver or giving a speech to the UN. The study found taboo language fluency correlated with general speech fluency, and taboo word fluency was linked to neuroticism and openness, two traits associated with smart people. You might not have to be smart to curse, but you need to be smart to curse well.
It’s a Choice, So Do What the Hell You Want
Sonia, Los Angeles-based mom of four, is super busy. She used to work full-time but now stays home. And she’s a perpetual profanity hound.
“All I do is curse in front of my kids,” Sonia admits to Parentology. “And then my kids tell me to not use that language.”
Sonia’s kids do not curse, either at home or at school. Sonia doesn’t understand how that occurred, but she’s not questioning it.
“I just tell them that they should strive to be better than me,” Sonia says. Like so many busy parents, she’s exhausted most of the time, and between breaking up fights, making meals, battling traffic, and tending to a million household chores, she doesn’t think too hard about her language usage.
“I just don’t have the energy to not curse,” Sonia confesses.
Most parenting specialists agree it’s all about parenting style. Forbid cursing under any circumstances, and you’re setting your kid up for a “forbidden fruit” situation, perfect for rebellion. Curse freely, and your child might get in hot water at school or a friend’s house. Or not.
Either way, studies show kids will eventually learn context, just for their own self-preservation. And that should be a small consolation for concerned parents.
“Whether or not children (and adults) swear, we know that they do acquire a contextually-bound swearing etiquette,” the Association of Psychological Science concludes, “the appropriate ‘who, what, where, and when’ of swearing.”