What Science Says About Parents Who Swear Around Their Kids
I’m a sweary mom. And — brace yourself here — I’m not sorry about it. The funny thing about swearing as a parent is that I never used to swear all that much until I had kids, which is a little ironic because once you have kids, you’re not supposed to swear around them. Swearing around children is taboo, after all. As a parent, you’re supposed to model the kind of behavior you want to see in your kids, and who wants to hear kids cussing?
But if we’re honest, nothing gives you more reason to curse than being a parent in the first place. I mutter some salty four-letter words under my breath several times a day but before I get judged for this, know that science is now on my side.
Profanity has some good uses.
Since humanity’s first words ever uttered, people have always set aside certain words that are considered harmful. Why? Because having forbidden words in a language serves an important function. If a bear has just mauled you — or you stepped on a frigging Lego, same diff — then screaming “oh, geez!” does not have the same satisfying burst of energy as “fucking hell!”
In a 2009 study, psychologist Richard Stephens of Keele University in England led a team of researchers in a study on the impact of swearing on pain tolerance. They asked a group of college kids to submerge their hands in ice-cold water. They could either mutter a non-sweary mantra or drop as many expletives as they wished. It turned out that those who swore saw reduced pain and were able to keep their hands cold for an average of 40 seconds longer than those who held a more neutral tongue.
What was at work in the brain is something called the hypoalgesic effect. Although not thoroughly proven, the current theory is that when the brain interprets pain, it fires up the amygdala, which then slams on the flight or fight response, sending adrenaline rushing through the bloodstream and helping to reduce pain temporarily.
However, the catch is that this curious phenomenon only appears to work if you don’t swear too much. Because like all good things in life, it’s about quality over quantity.
Science also says that swearing around kids won’t harm them.
You may not believe this, but kids are not the precious, breakable valuables that we like to think they are. Yes, they need to be loved, nurtured, and protected, but at some point, children became almost mythic in their pureness and how dare anyone act like flawed humans around them (eye roll). How will kids learn how to deal with the real world if we keep them isolated? As a social norm, we’ve collectively agreed that profanity and children just don’t mix. What’s more, we’ve even created laws that are a damaging waste of time and money that punish those who dare break with politeness.
In 2014, a mother in South Carolina was arrested for swearing in front of her kids in public. Danielle Wolf reportedly got upset when her husband repeatedly put a frozen pizza on top of the bread, squishing it in their cart. So, Wolf expressed her dismay by dropping an F-bomb. Unfortunately, a bystander heard the exchange and called the police.
Wolf was arrested on the spot, in front of her husband and children in the middle of a grocery store, and charged with disorderly conduct. The humiliation of that moment was likely far more damaging to Wolf and her family then her swearing at her husband in front of her kids was.
As author and English language expert Philip Goodin explained to Business Insider, “What makes swear words offensive is that people are ready to be offended by them.” And he’s right. The only reason why that mother in South Carolina faced legal consequences for swearing in front of her kids was that someone else was ready to be offended.
“It’s almost as if in language there has to be a part of language which is kind of dark and sinister area where people are wary about treading, but at the same time they want to go there, or many people want to go there,” Goodin explained to Business Insider. He goes on to tell an odd story about the word ‘bloody.’
“When the playwright George Bernard Shaw used it, I think in 1913 at the premiere of Pygmalion, the audience reaction was hysterical,” Goodin explained. “Bernard Shaw wrote to a friend that he thought the performance would have to be stopped because the audience was so out-of-control, and this was on the single word ‘bloody.’ I think Eliza Doolittle says, ‘Not bloody likely,’ and the audience kind of collapsed.”
In a 2017 Op-Ed for the LA Times, Benjamin Bergen, professor of cognitive science at UC San Diego and author of What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves raised some eyebrows when he argued that swearing around kids doesn’t damage them as much as we think it will.
Bergen points to the American Academy of Pediatrics’ stance on profanity as harmful because it can “encourage aggression or will numb a child’s normal emotional reactions.” Bergen counters this claim by explaining that there has never been a study on the effects of swearing around kids because exposing young tots to profanity would be ethically wrong.
College kids, however, are fair game. And for Bergen, it is easy to take the information and data learned from watching college kids in experiments about profanity and apply it to a group of kindergartners. So, what did he learn from college kids?
Bergen learned that using the run of the mill swears has almost no effect on kids. But slurs? Well, that’s a different beast altogether. He noted a 2014 study that showed how the repeated exposure to slurs would eventually alter how a person feels about both the victim and themselves. For example, in one observational study, 143 middle schoolers were exposed to homophobic slurs and reported feelings of anxiety and depression.
The big take away?
Basically, you can swear around kids. But you can’t impregnate those swears with hatred like using slurs or directing swears at a child. You can’t name call. You can’t flip out in anger and lay down a litany of foul language.
But if you drop an F-bomb here or there or utter an occasional “what the fuck is this shit!?” when you walk into a room to find your kid’s just shaved the family dog, take heart in the knowledge that you’re not damaging your kid. You’re an ordinary parent.