Children and swearing

29 Apr

Natalie Angier wrote a fascinating 2005 New York Times piece, Almost Before We Spoke:

Yet researchers who study the evolution of language and the psychology of swearing say that they have no idea what mystic model of linguistic gentility the critics might have in mind. Cursing, they say, is a human universal. Every language, dialect or patois ever studied, living or dead, spoken by millions or by a small tribe, turns out to have its share of forbidden speech, some variant on comedian George Carlin’s famous list of the seven dirty words that are not supposed to be uttered on radio or television.

Young children will memorize the illicit inventory long before they can grasp its sense, said John McWhorter, a scholar of linguistics at the Manhattan Institute and the author of “The Power of Babel,” and literary giants have always constructed their art on its spine.

“The Jacobean dramatist Ben Jonson peppered his plays with fackings and “peremptorie Asses,” and Shakespeare could hardly quill a stanza without inserting profanities of the day like “zounds” or “sblood” – offensive contractions of “God’s wounds” and “God’s blood” – or some wondrous sexual pun.

The title “Much Ado About Nothing,” Dr. McWhorter said, is a word play on “Much Ado About an O Thing,” the O thing being a reference to female genitalia.

Even the quintessential Good Book abounds in naughty passages like the men in II Kings 18:27 who, as the comparatively tame King James translation puts it, “eat their own dung, and drink their own piss.”

In fact, said Guy Deutscher, a linguist at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and the author of “The Unfolding of Language: An Evolutionary Tour of Mankind’s Greatest Invention,” the earliest writings, which date from 5,000 years ago, include their share of off-color descriptions of the human form and its ever-colorful functions. And the written record is merely a reflection of an oral tradition that Dr. Deutscher and many other psychologists and evolutionary linguists suspect dates from the rise of the human larynx, if not before.

To the consternation of many parents, their children use bad words or swear.

Kid’s Health has a great article about swearing, Swearing – using bad words:

What is swearing?

Swearing is a way of speaking that some people use to express their feelings of anger, annoyance, and frustration, or when they want to hurt someone else’s feelings. Sometimes people swear because they think it is smart or funny.Swear words can be: slang words used to describe something a person is too embarrassed to talk about racist or sexist words used to hurt someone’s feelings words used to criticise or put someone down  
    words that are blasphemous [say blass-fee-mus] which means words that are about someone’s god or religion being used as swear words.

Swearing is not okay

* In public  
* Around young children
* In school
* Around older people
* In the cinema or other public places like shopping centres and sports grounds
* In church, synagogue, mosque or other holy place
* On television or radio
* Anywhere there are other people who can be upset by swearing.

In order to guide children toward more appropriate language and behavior, parents must talk to their children about swearing.

Sierra Filucci has written a great Common Sense Media article, 5 Ways to Talk to Your Kids About Swearing — and Why:

What kids intuitively understand is that words are powerful, and certain words make a big impact. My son certainly felt the impact of the language that the birthday party gamers were using. Explaining to him why the kids were using those words — to shock, to feel older, to get attention — took a bit more time.

5 Ways to Talk to Kids About Swearing — and Why

  1. Think time and place. What might be no big deal at your house could be offensive at your best friend’s place. Remind kids to keep their audience in mind when they’re speaking. The language you use when texting your best buddy can be a bit looser than the words you use in a classroom or when speaking to Grandma on Skype.
  2. Expand your own vocab. You can almost always find a substitute for a curse word. Encourage kids to check out a thesaurus and find some creative alternatives to common curses or different ways to describe the feeling that’s making them want to curse. (My son is saying “peanut butter” instead of “dummy.” I tend to use “fig” a lot when I’m frustrated.)
  3. Words can hurt. Being called a name like “bitch” or “jerk” can sting. And just like it’s not OK to hit someone or bully them, it’s not OK to curse at someone to hurt them. Point out when TV characters call each other names, and ask kids how they could have handled the situation differently.
  4. Language reflects on you. Maybe some of your kids’ friends think cursing makes you cool, but the reality is that someone who curses a lot tends to look immature and not at all classy. Remind kids to keep that in mind, especially when they’re sending their language out into the world on social networks, online communities, etc.
  5. Limit exposure. Check out the “language” sections of our media reviews to help select TV shows, movies, games, etc. that keep the language within your comfort level. Find out how to turn off comments or access to chat rooms if kids are seeing inappropriate language on the web. (Learn more about handling swearing.)

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.
Mark Twain

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.
Nelson Mandela

Use what language you will, you can never say anything but what you are.
Ralph Waldo Emerson


Why Kids Curse                                                           

Swearing: school-age children               

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©

2 Responses to “Children and swearing”


  1. Talking to your teen about risky behaviors « drwilda - June 7, 2012

    […] Children and swearing                                            […]

  2. Title IX also mandates access to education for pregnant students « drwilda - June 19, 2012

    […] Children and swearing                             […]

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