A linguist’s love letter to profanity explains why it’s fine to curse around kids

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Free your mind.
Image: Reuters/Jean-Paul Pelissier
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Conventional wisdom tells us that, despite its many benefits, swearing isn’t a good idea around children. But then, it happens, invariably and internationally.

One linguist, Benjamin Bergen, a professor of cognitive science at UC San Diego, who has studied swearing, reflected on the question of how it should be used around children in a new book, What the F: What Swearing Reveals About our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves

Bergen, a self-purported lover of profanity and adorer of the f-bomb, noticed that his use of profanity changed after becoming a father. As he began watching his words more, he began to question, on an academic level, just how bad it would really be if he used expletives around his child. After all, Bergen points out that swearing is a pre-lingual, primal skill, according to neuroscience. After combing scientific research, he concluded there was a distinction between slurs, which science suggests are bad for children, and plain old four-letter words, which aren’t (thanks to a lack of scientific evidence suggesting otherwise).

There are many theories about why swearing around children is off limits, he explains in an op-ed in the LA Times. Swearing at children, he points out, is verbal abuse and takes a psychological toll. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that swearing in front of kids provokes aggressive behavior or dulled emotional reactions. But Bergen didn’t find any controlled scientific experiments about swearing in front of children (since it isn’t ethical to subject a kid to profanity for the sake of science). What he found was research on university students, which he extrapolated to children.

The only profanity that caused problems among this group was slurs. Bergen cites a 2014 study of 52 university students (average age of 21), in which those exposed to homosexuals slurs (versus a neutral term) subsequently said less money should go to AIDS-HIV prevention.  In another study of 61 participants in their early twenties, those exposed to homosexual slurs (versus a neutral term) moved their chairs at a greater distance from those believed to be homosexual.

Slurs could have worse effects on children, who are less developed socially and cognitively, he explains. An observational study (Bergen points out that there are no controlled experiments) of middle school children who were exposed to homophobic slurs, for instance, found they exhibited more symptoms of anxiety and depression.

As for everyday four-letter words, there’s no scientific proof that exposing children to ”ordinary profanity—four-letter words—causes any sort of direct harm: no increased aggression, stunted vocabulary, numbed emotions or anything else,” writes Bergen.

There’s also no need to worry about children who hear profanity and then use it, he adds. In a large observational study scientists found that children ages 1 to 12 naturally produced thousands of taboo utterances, to little effect. ”On no occasion did swearing lead to physical violence. Instead, taboo words were used mostly for positive reasons, for instance humor, and mostly were not produced out of anger,” he says.

Of course, there are social norms to contend with. A child who curses like a sailor, Bergen argues, is likely to face social repercussions for him and his family. For Bergen, that necessitates striking a balance. His policy is not to censor himself around his toddler, but to explain the swear words he uses and their appropriate use. He concludes that “even a 2-year-old can understand that the f-word can be muttered consequence-free at home but might lead to a negative reaction when screamed in the supermarket.”