We’ve all dropped a few F-bombs around children unintentionally — or possibly intentionally — but when it comes to swearing, should we really be doing it in front of our kids?
Parenting coach Sarah Rosensweet, of Toronto, said swearing around your children is really a personal choice.
“If you don’t mind your children swearing, go ahead and swear in front of them. If you don’t want them to, don’t swear in front of them,” she said. “I think the general perception is that swearing is potentially offensive for some people to hear, it can hurt people’s feelings and it can make people think ill of the swearer.”
However, she also added that when children are forbidden to do something, it makes them want to do it even more.
“Parents might decide that it’s important to them that their children not swear in public, or in front of the grandparents, but swearing at home is not a big deal,” she continued. “Or swearing at people in anger is not OK, but they don’t mind a swear if you drop a hammer on your foot.”
Parenting expert Maureen Dennis added that language itself is tricky for children because they have a lot to figure out when it comes to reading and writing.
“Swearing is often tied to strong emotions so it is something that interests kids, and they often mimic the actions, words and emotions that their parents display,” she said. “I have a story for every one of my kids swearing as toddlers, not understanding at all what they were saying. Those moments are the ones to explain the word, the emotion and the appropriate use of it.”
She said as children get older, they understand there are things that grownups can do that kids can’t — swearing ends up being one of them.
“When my kids ask why they are not allowed to swear, they know it’s because it isn’t appropriate behaviour for children, or ‘it’s bad,’ as my seven-year-old says,” Dennis explained. “Much like driving, drinking and many other grownup things, there are things that adults can do that kids cannot.”
What about fake swear words?
In a recent post for parenting blog Scary Mommy, author Gina Gallois argued faux swearing isn’t any better.
“My husband and I agree that, in our home, a sporting effort to avoid gratuitous cursing when children are within earshot is good enough. In our view, we can’t protect our children’s ears from every f**king impure syllable so we prefer to educate them and let them decide for themselves,” she wrote, adding that sometimes swearing is necessary.
“Quaint little words like ‘fudge’ and ‘dog biscuits’ don’t do it for me,” she wrote. “Swearing helps relieve pain. Real emotions like anger, pain and fear need and deserve to be expressed honestly and fully. Children not only grasp this concept, they need to see real emotion and expression so they can learn how to deal with it.”
Rosensweet said this could be a “cute” way to get around some words.
“It avoids the pitfalls of why they are frowned on,” she explained.
A look into the science
Previously speaking with Global News, cognitive scientist Benjamin Bergen said casually swearing around kids is fine.
“The use of fleeting expletives doesn’t have any impact at all on their well-being, on their socialization… as far as we can tell,” Bergen said.
The author of What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains and Ourselves added there is a clear distinction between swearing and verbal abuse.
“Verbal abuse can come in all different varieties, and that can include swearing and slurs,” he continued. “We can track over time how kids who are exposed to abusive language show increases in anxiety, depression and troubles in school.”
Other research has found that children start swearing around age two and that it becomes more adult-like by ages 11 or 12, authors at the Association for Psychological Science noted in 2012.
“By the time children enter school, they have a working vocabulary of 30 to 40 offensive words,” the report continued. “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.”
But when it came to swearing around children, the authors argued that children pick up these words anyway.
“Is it important to attempt to censor children from language they already know? While psychological scientists themselves do not establish language standards, they can provide scientific data about what is normal to inform this debate.”
Understanding the meaning of words
Both experts agree swear words are words that require teaching moments.
“If you lose your cool and act inappropriately yourself — hey, we know it happens — take the time to explain to your kids why you acted that way and used that language,” Dennis explained.
“If they use a swear word when they are young, instead of freaking out, use it as again as a teachable moment. If they continue to use it then you need have a different talk about why they are choosing that language and behaviour.”
Rosensweet added that children also need to understand the difference between swear words and slurs and how some words can hurt others.
“I told my kids that they are just words but that some people might not think you are a very nice little boy or girl if you say them and that they can hurt people’s feelings,” she said.
If your child hears a slur, parents should be able to explain the meanings and history behind these words, said Rosensweet.
“Using those words is never OK. I differentiate them from swear words,” she added.
—With files from Kim Smith