Are your kids swearing?
When Dee’s toddler Lachlan put his hands on hips and told his older sibling he was a little bum bum head, Dee had to try to keep a straight face and stifle a giggle. While it might tickle your funny bone when your youngster innocently uses language like this, it’s no laughing matter when an ever-increasing number of kids trot out swear words that would make a hip-hop gangsta blush.
Professor Timothy Jay, a psychological scientist who has extensively studied the science of taboo words and swearing, says these days kids can begin swearing by the age of two and by the time they start school most kids have a repertoire of around 30 to 40 colourful or offensive words.
If children are very young, they might use swear words because they are simply experimenting with language.
If children are very young, they might use swear words because they are simply experimenting with language. According to Warren Cann, a psychologist and director of Raising Children Network, children might mispronounce a word or copy words they’ve heard. “Sometimes they don’t even know its meaning — just that they definitely do get a reaction when they say it,” he says.
Young children are also fascinated by bodily functions so many, like Lachlan, might experiment with mild toilet humour, using names like “farty face” or “pooper head”. It’s something they’ll grow out of.
As for older kids, well, some slip in the occasional swear word to look cool in front of their peers, or to conform, or they might just be repeating what they see as acceptable language they’ve heard at home, on television or on social media.
And that is the crux of the problem.
A cursing culture
“You silly bugger!” “You bloody ripper!” On any given Saturday at the sidelines of a kids’ footy match, or even at a seniors’ get-together at the RSL over a few beers, you’ll hear colourful language bantered about. Some language experts say swearing is part of what it is to be an Aussie.
Professor of linguistics Kate Burridge says swearing is part of our cultural identity and its origins go back a long way. “Early settlement defined much of the spoken language — the convict slang, the language of whalers and sailors,” she says.
Fast-forward a few hundred years and who could forget bikini-clad Laura Bingle in a 2008 Tourism Australia advertisement asking potential holiday makers, “Where the bloody hell are you?” Interestingly, the language used in the ad didn’t impress overseas viewers. Advertisers pulled the plug on it because, two years on, it hadn’t increased tourist numbers and some even found it offensive.
Has bugger lost its bite?
Have we become unshockable? Or do we just have a much more laidback approach to language than other in other countries? Linguistic experts like Professor Burridge say we’re exposed to more cursing because the new millennium has a much more casual approach to living. “A general informality is creeping around the world,” she says. “This includes informal language — warts and all — so we are seeing swearing in the public arena much more than ever before.”
Linguistic experts like Professor Burridge say we’re exposed to more cursing because the new millennium has a much more casual approach to living.
Indeed, some might argue popular culture promotes the use of profanity. Plug into social media sites or flick on the TV and you’ll see and hear a plethora of swear words and bad language. In fact, 2013’s Wolf on Wall Street broke an all-time record for the most profanities uttered during the course of a movie. The F-bomb is used 506 times — an average of 2.81 times per minute.
Teen novels are also rife with rude words. In a new study out of the US, Brigham Young University’s Professor Sarah Coyne analysed the use of profanity in 40 teen bestsellers. On average the novels contained 38 instances of swearing. Perhaps even more interesting is that the study explored just who was doing all the cussing. Those who swore the most between the pages were not the stereotypical “bad guys” but the popular, attractive kids.
Increasing public profanity is also creeping into clever little commodity names — though it’s subtle, many are a play on swear words. Nucking Futs, a brand of nuts, went on the market in 2012 but no Australians launched complaints with the Australian Trademarks Office. Then there’s FCUK, or French Connection, a UK-based global retailer. The company was taken to court but a judge ruled the word “not immoral”, comparing it to T-shirt brand King Cnut.
Then, even less subtle, are the countless throw pillows, bumper stickers and more that give the thumbs-up (and sometimes other fingers too) to coarse language.
Zip your lips
But before parents point their fingers at multimedia for their kid’s trashy talk, they need to do a little soul searching. According to a survey of over 670 parents by Raising Children Network, more than 40 per cent of respondents said they swear every day. But 99 per cent of parents believed it was unacceptable for children to swear.
And therein lies the rub: kids will copy their parents. “The words you hear used at home are generally the words that you’ll use for self-expression,” says Cann. “When parents swear, kids will almost always automatically model these behaviours.”
If you don’t want your offspring to swear, both parents also need to be on the same page. It won’t work if one parent condones a child’s occasional language slip-up and the other doesn’t. Consistency is the key.
It’s up to parents to decide what is and isn’t acceptable language for their children to use. In some homes, words that might seem fairly innocuous to some are banned and kids are punished for using them; in others, dropping the occasional “sh#!” or “@*#!hole” barely raises an eyebrow.
Even with tight parental controls on TV and multimedia, children will still be exposed to hearing swear words — in the schoolyard, at the bus stop or in shopping centres, for example. Most parents want to protect their kids from foul language but, unless you live inside a bubble or on a far-flung deserted island, it’s just not possible.
If you don’t want your offspring to swear, both parents also need to be on the same page.
But there is good news. Because swearing and more casual language in general are so prolifically entrenched in modern day culture, being exposed to bad language isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Professor Burridge says it helps children gain a wider understanding of the situations in which certain language should be used — and if at all.
“Kids have to learn to make decisions on what sort of language is appropriate and acceptable in different circumstances,” she says.
Whether or not swearing is acceptable in your family, kids need to know there is definitely a swearing etiquette. According to Prof Timothy Jay, this is the appropriate “who, what, where and when” of swearing. Use taboo language indiscriminately and it does have an impact.
The bottom line with swearing is, if your child sprinkles their language with words that might offend at the wrong time and in the wrong place, it places them squarely in the crosshairs for those who may choose to pass judgement.
Breaking the swearing habit
If your child is swearing, sit them down for a chat about why their language isn’t appropriate. For very young children, don’t go into too much detail or offer an explanation of what the word means if they are too young to understand. Explain to your child that their choice of words isn’t acceptable. Just say that was not a nice word to call your friend or that when we’re angry we don’t say that word.
Cann says, above all, try to remain calm and relaxed. “Keep a neutral expression on your face — and try not to react,” he says. “If you laugh, get angry or look shocked, your child soon learns the words they have used are powerful — and they’ll be more likely to repeat them.”
For preteens, letting them know what the word means might even be enough to encourage them to stop. But by far the biggest deterrent for swearing for preteens and older kids is to not only watch your own language but have an open honest dialogue with the children about family values and attitudes. Cann says parents need to talk to them about what is acceptable language in your family and why. “If parents only rely on a catch-and-punish modality, kids will just learn to swear outside of the home,” he says.
And when you do see your child doing the right thing by using appropriate language and handling frustrating situations without swearing, let them know you’ve noticed.
Kids need to know it’s OK to feel angry; what’s not OK is to lash out verbally or physically. Just like physical aggression, verbal aggression directed towards others is unacceptable and there should be zero tolerance.
Cann says behavioural issues that involve verbal aggression need to be nipped in the bud very early on. “Otherwise, by the time kids reach their early teenage years, if they habitually call their mother names when they’re feeling frustrated, for example, it’s a challenging behaviour to break,” he says.
Encourage your child to deal with their anger in positive ways, to remove themselves from the situation, or to use more appropriate and acceptable words. And while words like “golly gosh”, “darn it” and “bollocks” might be more socially acceptable to vent frustration or anger, they all seem to somehow lack a little … well, oomph.
Kids need to know it’s OK to feel angry; what’s not OK is to lash out verbally or physically.
So what about making up a word or two your kids can use? If your child drops the occasional clanger, here are some alternatives: “Son of a biscuit”, “What the frog”, “Eat soap” or “Go lick a duck”. Perhaps you could even get together with the kids and share a bit of a giggle while you make up some humorous venting words together — it might help to replace their anger with a smile.
Some families also have a place for unedited self-expression, a physical location such as the family bathroom where everyone in the family can say what they like — including otherwise taboo words. Cann says this idea is a safe option to let go of built-up emotions: “Kids and parents can go and let it all out when they feel overwhelmed and agitated.”
If you are struggling to get your child to stop swearing, you might need to dig a little deeper to find out why they’re using bad language.
Is there an ingrained pattern of behaviour or aggression towards one person or group that might mean unresolved issues or problems you as a parent are unaware of? Could there be underlying issues that your child harbours such as racism or sexism? For example, Cann says if your child uses the word “bitch” in certain circumstances that might reveal how they feel towards certain groups such as women or gays.
Stamping out swearing in public
Despite the proliferation of profanity in everyday language and its colourful colonial origins, it’s illegal to swear in public in some states. For example, in NSW the premier has said the use of harsh language in public will be met with even harsher on-the-spot penalties — the recent change is three times the previous penalty. If you swear in a public place in NSW, you can be hit with a hefty $500 fine by police officers.
A ‘different’ kind of language
Did you know the language of swearing or profanity is rather unique? This is because it’s housed in a different part of the brain from other language. Professor Burridge says this language storage phenomenon is well documented. “All the neurological and neuro linguistic evidence points to the fact that swearing and swear words are either accessed or at least stored differently in the brain,” she says. Interestingly, this is probably why some patients with Alzheimer’s, brain injuries or other disabilities may readily recall swear words but struggle with other language.