I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a fan of swearing personally. In context, it can quite succinctly convey meanings and feelings with greater ease than any other word or phrase in the English language. It describes social nuances and from country to country, cultural references. It is, most definitely, a colourful area of human language. Rich with history and imagination. Scientists have even discovered that a well placed f-bomb can help to relieve the pain of, say, a stubbed toe or… childbirth even. Naturally, context is everything. Whilst I personally wouldn’t generally sensor myself in public, I do make more of a conscious effort to speak differently if children are present and I am also respectful of people who genuinely don’t like it. Similarly, I wouldn’t dream of aggressively swearing at another person. Well, most other people.
The social-science data and psychological evidence available has determined that swearing in itself is harmless. It is context and intention that inflict emotional harm and the vast majority of serious cases of offence. Aggressive swearing is, however, quite different to “normal” contextual swearing. General offence to swearing appears to be purely about social perception rather than any actual dangers associated with its use. Essentially, people don’t like swearing because other people don’t like swearing – noboby wants to be considered offensive, vulgar or socially unaware.
However, the evidence available actually suggests that contextual swearing is a creative and intelligent use of language and reflects a more intelligent and free-thinking personality.
Where do children fit in to all of this?
The evidence is disappointingly limited, but what we do know is that it isn’t really any different than for adults. Children are said to learn the bulk of swearing from their parents, whether that’s from regular aggressive swearing, regular contextual swearing or dropping to occasional accidental f-bomb. The way in which children use the words directly mirrors the ways in which they have witnessed their use. Children who use aggressive swearing are significantly more likely to come from a home where aggressive swearing is common, it is clear that the issue there is more the aggression of any kind than the exactities of the words involved.
Children learn about swearing in context and when it is and isn’t socially acceptable from the behaviour that their parents or caregivers are modelling, so it is therefore understandable that those who are not given context or offered a reasonable amount of social discourse will be less likely to use it appropriately.
This makes for uncomfortable reading for many, particularly as children who swear are frowned upon and parents often blamed for their “uncouth” behaviour. But, like any taboo – they are made to be challenged.
Particularly as several interesting studies suggest that, not just when it comes to swearing, banning and censorship only leads to forbidden fruit syndrome. Essentially, it becomes all the more appealing which removes a parent’s chance to offer context. It also becomes all the more problematic when parents inevitably slip. This can send confusing messages to children.
So, whilst you might not be interested in encouraging swearing or maybe you straight up dislike it even – it is worth considering that avoidance and censorship aren’t the most responsible parenting tools and, long term, there is no way to protect children from swearing. The best we can offer to them is context and the social expectations surrounding the where, the when and the why so that they will go on to speak respectfully to people and, beyond that, swear when is appropriate for themselves. The most powerful parenting tool of all, however, is always that of modelled behaviour. If your child sees you behaving respectfully toward others and not including swearing in your casual interactions with people on the street, chances are your children will grow up to be much the same.