Children are like little snot-filled sponges, picking up the mannerisms of the people closest to them with startling ease — consider how physically active mothers are more likely to have physically active kids. To become a parent, then, is to become newly aware of your habits, and how they may transfer to your offspring. This was the case for University of California, San Diego, cognitive scientist Benjamin Bergen: In a new column for the Los Angeles Times, he details how he used to talk like a sailor, seasoning his vocabulary with four-letter words — and then he had a kid. As prudish as it made him feel, he started watching his language, and, as a scientist does, he started investigating: Is swearing really bad for kids?
While the research on swearing in front of children is not exhaustive — subjecting kids to heavy cursing is ethically dubious because there could be risk of harm — experiments with college students suggest that the only really harmful language are slurs, as opposed to curses. Bergen notes one study where students who were exposed to a homosexual slur sat four inches farther away from someone they believed to be gay than participants who saw a neutral word. Similarly, another experiment found that undergrads exposed to a gay-bashing slur thought less money should be allocated for HIV activism. But there’s no evidence that good, old-fashioned curse words lead to more violence or dulled emotions in kids; Bergen reports that when kids do use taboo words, it’s more for the sake of humor (because kids know what’s funny) and less out of anger.
But even if there’s no direct harm stemming from swearing, there’s still social convention to sort through, he observes. Like so much of life, language is context sensitive — and swears are a case study in sensitivity. You don’t want Junior cursing up a storm in front of their school principal. So Bergen found a compromise. “When I happen to swear around my kid, I provide some coaching. I engage him in an honest dialogue about why some words are OK in some places, but not others,” he writes. “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.” Becoming sensitive to context is a huge part of communicating well, so might as well get kids started on funnest, most forceful words.
Indeed, as kids are bound to learn, swearing can be quite useful. With its combination of social risk and taboo violation, swearing is a great way to bond with people, and the emotional intensity of swearing may literally help you withstand pain. In a zany 2011 study, two groups of participants dipped their hands into icy water — one could repeat their favorite profanity while withstanding the cold, the other could not. The swear-y group withstood the ice bath longer — but the effect was greater for people who swore less in their daily lives. This is also a good lesson for kids: To get the most out of anything, do it in moderation.