Why You Should Let Your Kids Swear
My cousin’s first memory of me was when I rushed up to show him my gingerbread man, but decapitated him as I crashed into his body with overenthusiastic fervour (the biscuit; not my cousin).
I looked down at the severed head. Then looked up at my older cousin, square in the eye.
Instead of the trembling lip and tearful eyes he was expecting, I simply exclaimed, without losing eye contact:
I was five.
My lack of waterworks proves something researchers have been claiming consistently: swearing increases resilience.
And as I don’t have kids myself, what I’m about to argue may be controversial: you should be relaxed about them swearing.
First off, swearing is now everywhere. A study found that 18% of Aussies claim they never swear while 10% admit to swearing up to 20 times a day. In between those extremes, a majority -- 82% -- are using expletives.
Obviously there’s a hierarchy, from the archetypal Aussie adverb, “bloody” -- used by practically every Australian, especially since Scott Morrison’s marketing days -- to the always contentious c-bomb.
And I’m not suggesting for one second you start dropping the c-bomb in front of your toddler. Not unless they’re really badly behaved. (No, not even then!)
It never did me any harm; I knew when I was called a granny-slang expletive -- the softer, nostalgic ones (you little git / bugger / sod!) -- I’d overstepped the line and needed to reign it in. Only those taboo words held the power to keep me from going round decapitating everything from Barbie dolls to gingerbread men. (I was a boisterous child. Which is a euphemism for: a little git.)
But the recent survey -- conducted by Oral B -- found that when Aussies swear, it’s most often an expression of stress or humour. Context is everything here -- insulting invective is very different from swearing to vent or amuse. And studies suggest kids know the difference.
In his book, What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, Professor Benjamin K Bergen reveals that dropping the F-bomb around kids isn’t the end of the world. His research debunks the myth that swearing is harmful to kids. “Children’s minds are resilient to profanity,” he writes.
Research conducted by psycholinguist Timothy Jay found that children as young as one year old know many swear words while older kids in school are aware of up to 42 -- and academics tend to agree the harm is negligible. It shows that our early sense of taboo is powerful -- kids delight in the shock value and boundary-pushing by using expletives, even when they don’t know what they really mean.
My sister -- a nursery staff worker -- often regales us with a fabulous story of a toddler at her nursery who, every time she did something clumsy, would exclaim “For sake!” So she’d drop her lunch on the floor, look at my sister and say “Oh, for sake!” At first staff were baffled by this quirk, until they realised her parents were censoring out the middle expletive, but she picked up on its punch. “For ****’s sake!”
That middle word is bound to slip out at some point!
But it’s this kind of little girl who’ll end up resilient, rather than those snowflakes who are cocooned and mollycoddled from the often brutal realities of the real world.
It also provides lessons about the guilt we encourage when we expect parents to be superhuman heroes when raising kids.
There are many other studies showing the benefits of swearing for when kids grow older. In her book Swearing Is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language, Emma Byrne analyses all this data to show how swearing can help build effective teams, foster closer human bonding, improve productivity, and enable us to better withstand pain.
In one experiment, involving participants putting their hands into a container of icy water, those who could swear were able to withstand the discomfort longer and judged it to be less severe than those using neutral words to express the misery.
And yet still we try to shield our delicate little cherubs’ ears from the profanities. In some cases, Australians can even be fined (or imprisoned!) for swearing in pubic.
Kids swearing may be one of the last taboos, so when it’s smashed, it creates remarkable and memorable results.
I went to see Billy Elliot The Musical at the Sydney Lyric Theatre last week and the show's biggest laughs happen when the 12-year-old characters use expletives (wanker, for example) -- showing ultimately what linguistic fun it all can be if we don't take it too seriously.
But also, look what happens when we do.
The single most powerful campaign video I’ve ever seen uses the device of kids swearing to drive home a powerful and chilling message. The video "Potty-Mouthed Princesses Drop F-Bombs for Feminism" shows that there are far more important things to get our wound up about than swearing: pay inequality and violence against women, for example.
Now that’s something to get f***ing pissed off about.