Confession: I swear. Nay, I’m a veteran user of profanity; I have a mouth like a sailor. I’m a firm believer that a good, well-placed curse word in the right context can ease stress, accentuate a point and relieve physical and emotional pain. And sometimes the s-, f-, a- and all the other cusses (no, not super-offensive ones) surface when my daughters are indeed within earshot. That probably explains why my nine- and seven-year-olds have tossed out the “sh-word” (as they call it) twice or thrice. Does this make me a bad mother? I say no. And I don’t think fellow parents who occassionally rhyme off obscenities are bad parents either.
An informal and admittedly unscientific poll on Facebook revealed I’m not alone when it comes to this effing habit. One mother said having children hasn’t changed who she is, and she’ll be damned if she speaks or acts differently around her kids. Another mom of two said she doesn’t always bite her tongue: “I don’t view the use of profanities as vulgar or taboo, as it depends on the context of use—as a form of expression or as an extension of what I may be feeling. And to be honest, our tween has heard worse from his peers.” Touché.
While it’s probably safe to say that most parents do our best to censor ourselves around our offspring, there’s no denying kiddos pick up on PG-13 or R-rated vocabulary. “Although the Federal government protects children from exposure to swearing by censoring language in the media, there seems to be little evidence that swearing is actually harmful to little ears,” says Janice Ebenstiner, a child and family therapist in Vancouver. Of course that doesn’t mean it’s always OK to use expletives. There’s a time and place—everything in moderation, right?
In his book, What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, Benjamin K. Bergen, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California at San Diego, says dropping the F-bomb around kids isn’t the worst thing in the world. He says kids’ minds are resilient to profanity. Obscenities that aren’t used aggressively, and are instead used as a way to emphasize or for humour, aren’t going to hurt anyone. “There’s no proof that exposure to ordinary profanity—four-letter words—causes any sort of direct harm: no increased aggression, stunted vocabulary, numbed emotions or anything else,” Bergen wrote in the Los Angeles Times. Ebenstiner concurs. “Some researchers suggest swearing can have a cathartic effect. This sort of cussing—to relieve pain and frustration— doesn’t necessarily have lasting implications,” she says.
While yelling, “S-word! I stubbed my toe!” won’t hurt your kid, there are always caveats: Swearing at children can be considered abusive and have a lasting effect on their sense of self, says Ebenstiner. For many folks, exposing children to profanity is morally and ethically questionable. “When swearing involves slanderous statements and slurs about social and racial groups, for example, it can have a negative impact on their ability to form their own decisions and opinions.” Another thing you may want to consider is that your kids are watching how you cope in difficult situations, and if your swearing always shows frustration and anger, these behaviours could rub off on your crew.
The good news is the type of cursing most of us engage in isn’t going to cause any kind of emotional or cognitive damage. That said, when I’m letting off steam or let a bad word slip in front of my girls, I’m quick to follow it with a heartfelt, “Oops, I probably shouldn’t have said that—sorry.”
If you do get caught spouting off swears, “it’s important to acknowledge the transgression and provide education. It’s also key to distinguish those words that are socially taboo and the contexts whereby this type of profanity is less acceptable and will lead to negative consequences,” Ebenstiner says.
“When I happen to swear around my kid,” said Bergen, “I provide some coaching. I engage him in an honest dialogue about why some words are OK in some places and not others.” It’s good for kids to know that everyone makes mistakes—including parents. No one’s freaking perfect.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, Spring/Summer 2018