My sisters and I were brought up in a household that not only encouraged, but demanded respectful language. We weren’t allowed to say shut up, bloody, bugger, or crap. One aunty didn’t even let us say fart or bum. Your typical four letter swear words were definitely off limits. This wasn’t just a rule for kids, I almost never heard my parents swear. I can distinctly remember the first time I heard each of my parents swear. Mum had narrowly avoided a potentially catastrophic car accident when she let out s**t in a whisper as she clutched the steering wheel, while Dad was explaining an issue to the mechanic when I heard through the car window that the alternator was f***ed. Both of these occurred when I was about 11, which was also around about the time people in my grade at school began throwing these words around. Naturally, I joined in. But I always had a switch. The second there was an adult within earshot, I would turn it off.
I continue to swear unreservedly in particular situations. I’d go so far as to say I enjoy it. I also continue to have a switch that I can flick on or off depending on the situation. I alter my language according to my environment and my company. When my children are around, expletives are not used. I loosen my grip if my 14 year old is the only child present and will happily use words such as crap and at a stretch maybe even bitch or arsehole. Equally, I would allow him to use such words when in my presence, but not in the presence of his younger siblings. It is proved over and over again that modelling is a powerful educator. For the most part, I believe in do as I do, rather than do as I say. I don’t believe it is right for parents to swear in front of their children and then scold their children for swearing. Likewise it seems odd to smack a child as a punishment for aggressive or violent behaviour. To take it one step further, I also don’t believe it is right for parents to sit down to a meal with an alcoholic drink and only allow their children to drink water. In our house, if the parents get a special drink, so too do the children.
I have come to realise, at least in my social circles, that our family isn’t the norm. There are people who I respect, and who I know have good moral standings, who have different boundaries to me when it comes to swearing. Some swear openly in front of their children and allow them to do the same, some swear openly in front of their children but do not allow them to do the same. I just can’t bring myself to adopt the latter; I struggle to overlook the hypocrisy. And I can’t think of how parents swear openly in front of their children, allow their to do the same, and also teaching them about appropriate context? Children often mimic words in their first year, can you teach appropriate context at that age? I have one friend who refers to his children using profanities as terms of endearment. According to the limited research on the topic, this likely isn’t harmful. But my sociological curiosity is definitely piqued.
There’s little research into swearing and its effects on children. This article quoting a study on swearing and children informs us that swearing increases with intense emotion, and is also associated with increased pain tolerance. Does that mean if we want resilient kids, we should encourage them to swear? It goes on to state that swearing is often linked to abuse and harassment, and that profane people are found to be less conscientious and less agreeable. However, it would seem that for the most part, swearing itself does not cause harm. In addition to the lack of conscientiousness (which I would like to avoid in my children), awareness of context is my concern.
Children are constantly developing their identities, figuring out how they fit into this world, discovering how best to have their voice heard, while learning what they believe it right and wrong. Growing up can be a tough gig. I’m not sure I want to make it tougher. I’m wholeheartedly an advocate for early independence – kids cooking dinner, cleaning their rooms, doing their washing, feeding the dog etc. While instilling this independence can be difficult, I see that as making their lives easier in the long run as they will be better equipped for life. But swearing in front of them and subsequently telling them they can’t, creates confusion. I assume it also contributes to frustration and animosity towards parents, because well, it’s unfair. Swearing in front of children and then allowing them to also use that language makes life difficult for any child too young to understand context. At this stage, swearing is not appropriate at child care or at school. To a lesser extent, it’s not appropriate on the sporting field. It’s often not appropriate if the words are directed at a person. There are particular people who it is inappropriate to swear in front of. Until a child is capable of interpreting context and making considered decisions about the appropriateness of their language, exposing them to profanities is likely to make their lives more difficult without associated positive reward.