Maybe Swearing In Front Of Our Kids Isn't Such A Bad Thing

by Susie b Cross
Originally Published: 
A blonde mother swearing
Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

I think the word f*ck is a superstar. Look at its rubbery usage. It can transmogrify from a noun (e.g. “I don’t give a f*ck”) to a verb (e.g. “Go f*ck yourself”) to an adverb (e.g. “This is f*ckin’ amazing”), and so on. Some people find swearing crass, but I prefer to believe that “swearing relieves stress, dulls the sensation of pain, fosters camaraderie among peers and is linked with traits like verbal fluency, openness and honesty.” The studies don’t lie.

But what about swearing in front of our kids? Does that habit indicate our sincerity, our self-control, our verbal acumen? Or does it just mean we are filterless and uncouth, unable to control our foul mouths?

I have a little bit of experience swearing in front of my children. No one wants to admit, even to themselves, that they unleashed their garbage mouth in front of their impressionable children. And nobody wants to admit they gaslighted them afterward.

I can’t say I ever learned my lesson. Years later, in the kitchen, two older, savvier boys busted me. Or maybe I busted myself. The oldest asked me what “the f-word” meant, and I replied in my this-is-what-a-responsible-parent-might-say tone: “It’s a nasty, nasty word said by nasty, nasty people.”

Almost simultaneously, I tapped a jar of salsa on the counter to loosen its lid. The glass neck shattered, salsa and shards flew every which way, and I let fly a violent series of f*ck-f*ck-f*ck-f*cks. (When I gathered myself, I looked over, and the 6-year-old had the tiniest of smiles on his face. “Don’t you dare tell Grandma!” I threatened. He was on the phone and ratting me out within 30 seconds. 42 years old, and I was definitely going to get a talking to by my mom.)

I felt crushingly guilty. Swearing in front of the boys made me one of those “nasty, nasty people,” a hypocrite and an unfit mother. But, maybe I was too quick to judge myself. Maybe all that untethered swearing may not have been cause for self-flagellation.

If you ask Benjamin Bergin, a cognitive scientist at the University of California San Diego and the author of the book “What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves,” I was probably being way too hard on myself. In fact, Bergin says that exposure to swearing teaches children about the “nuances of society.” I like the way that guy thinks — because who doesn’t need a little training when it comes to interpreting social cues and adapting to what the context calls for? And what better way to expose your child to these complex mores than through a little bit of unbridled swearing?

Timothy Jay, professor emeritus of psychology at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, has an even more persuasive argument. Jay takes on the age-old assumption that people who swear have lacking vocabularies that prevent them from expressing themselves in a more appropriate, intelligent way: a stereotype that “every language scholar knows [is] not true.”

In fact, Jay’s seminal 2015 study found that someone who is uber-adept at swearing may very well have greater verbal acuity and intellect than the abstainer. “People who are good at producing language are good at producing swear words,” says Jay. “It’s not because they don’t have language — it’s because they have a whole toolbox full of words.”

So, not only is swearing okay to do with your kid in earshot — Dr. Emma Byrne, research scientist and author of “Swearing is Good For You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language,” believes that being exposed to questionable language is integral to children’s development.

“We try to keep strong language away from kids until they know how to use it effectively,” she explains. “I strongly argue that we should revise this attitude.”

As far as I’m concerned, Byrne is on-target. Aren’t we swearers, in essence, encouraging our children’s fluency? Aren’t we illustrating the ingenuity and flexibility of language (think of creative coinages like “tw*twaffle” and “f*cktangular”)?

If swearing is really an indication of intelligence, why not harness those naughty words and introduce them to our kids like we do the ABCs or correct scissor usage? Maybe, just maybe, the f-bomb is the secret weapon we need to boost our young students’ literacy scores.

So the next time you smash that jar of Pace Picante, you don’t have to yell “Balderdash,” “Dadgummit,” or “Sufferin’ succotash!” You can just go for broke and let the f*cks fly. And when your pre-schooler asks what your chosen expletive means, just tell them the truth: It’s a clever, clever word said by clever, clever people.

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