Kids Swearing: It's okay, you know, sort of... - Dad for Beginners Kids Swearing: It's okay, you know, sort of... - Dad for Beginners

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kids swearing

Kids Swearing: It’s okay, you know, sort of…

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When you hear kids swearing, conclusions are made. Almost instantly, hearing any number of kids swearing brings the listener to a conclusion, either about the kid or about his or her parents. It is unfair, however, to jump to conclusions about a kid simply by hearing a curse word. I’ve recently been exposed, with increasing regularity, to young kids swearing and while it seems on the surface to be distasteful and crass, it is rarely the fault of the child. Here is my example, which may not apply across the board. Nevertheless it is worth some thought.

“Tha fuck out my way, bitch,” the 12-year-old seventh grader shouted during a class jog around the baseball fields during Phys Ed.

“Hey fuck you, man,” his comrade running just beside him replied.

Both boys shared a couple playful jabs back and forth before continuing their jog along the outfield fence and back towards the main gymnasium.

Around them, a dozen or so of their classmates jogged calmly, either laughing at the vulgar exchange between the friends or simply not noticing at all.

Inside the fence adjacent to the middle school baseball fields, I watched the group of seventh graders run back towards the gym while my 4-year-old played on the playground slides behind me. I glanced towards him to see if he picked up on anything that was said between the middle school boys during their run. He hadn’t. Lucky, I guess.

I turned back towards my son. “When did 12-year-olds become so openly vulgar?” I thought to myself. Although I wanted to for a second, I didn’t judge these kids. Why are young kids swearing? Was I like that? Certainly I do not remember integrating curses into my vernacular until well after 7th grade. Maybe the times have just changed.

I distinctly remember being 12. In 1997, being 12 entailed far different things then than it does now. Most 12 year old girls did not wear make-up and those who did typically did it either in emulation of their mothers or explicitly because of their mothers. At the same park – the one where I overheard the young boys cursing at one another – I’ve heard girls of the same age walk the grounds during Phys Ed, staring at their phones and telling each other dick jokes. What happened to childhood? 

In 1997 I not only did not swear but neither did any of my friends. Surely kids swearing in ’97 was not rare, I just don’t recall it being so widespread. Once when I was playing with a friend in my front yard, his older brothers rode past us on their bikes and threw some playful curse words in our direction. My father, sitting just inside the house with the window open, walked outside and followed them home – simply because they were too young to be using foul language. They never did it around us again.

Imagine a grown man following a pre-teen home in 2017 for any reason, good or bad. Just imagine. I’m literally scared to even help a child up after a rough fall at the park for fear of some type of lawsuit or physical retaliation from the parent.

Was it right for my dad to do that? Did he have any right to follow another person’s child home because he thought kids swearing was akin to speaking inappropriately? My own parents heavily stigmatized cursing when I was young, even going so far as to do the antiquated soap-in-the-mouth punishment when I was caught using a curse.

I learned to swear, albeit on my own, at a much later stage. It wasn’t until I played junior hockey between the ages of sixteen and nineteen that cursing became a useful part of my everyday lexicon.

Experts in the field of language development will often argue that cursing isn’t necessarily a bad thing deserving of punishment because typically it’s an emotional response and is much more complicated than regular speech. Swearing is generally considered the same as speaking but because it’s stigmatized and emotionally charged, most people learn the degrees of acceptability. I’m not sure what linguists in general think about kids swearing, but I’d assume most would not chastise it because while curse words are taboo words for adults, for kids they are just words. While kids swearing likely isn’t condoned at any level of academia, surely it is not overtly stigmatized either since it’s a function of developmental expression.

Notice how you are probably comfortable swearing around friends or siblings but show a heightened uneasiness when it’s around someone who you know prohibits it or finds it disrespectful…like a pastor, an HR manager, or your own mother.

My father never swore around me or my sister when we were kids. Not because he’s pious and pure, but because it’s a style of expression he believed to be inconsistent with how children should be articulating themselves. I’ve learned as I’ve aged that my father is not at all pious and in his daily conversations with friends and colleagues, quite often invokes curse words as descriptors or to make a contention. Now that I’m in my thirties, we can have a discussion that may or may not require the use of the “bad” words based solely on the topic or how one of us feels about it.

The point is not to say that swearing is bad. Even kids swearing cannot convincingly be termed “bad.” In fact it is quite the opposite if used appropriately. But in much the same way you may on occasion swear in front of your coworkers or even your boss, you simply do not do it in the Human Resources office. But why not? That individual is an adult as well who almost certainly employs a similar vernacular at times in his or her own life. Why do you adjust your word choice in HR? You adjust it because in HR there are unwritten expectations for how you are expected to conduct yourself.

That unwritten expectation extends to other areas of life as well. Places where you know –without ever being taught– that swearing is objectionable. Places like church, a funeral, an interview, a wedding ceremony, or an employer sponsored luncheon. This space of ‘no-swearing-zones’ is shrinking more and more. It used to include many other aspects of society like on television or in front of children. Not anymore.

Swearing is normalized. In his 1972 monologue the Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television, the late comedian George Carlin recounted the limits of cursing on network TV. His infamous seven word list has been effectively normalized down to just four unless you watch after around 10pm, then it’s normalized down to two.

Parents no longer shy away from letting the “bad” words fall off their tongues in front of young children. Even if parents swore at or around children before, it was not commonly in public spaces. They then scold the child when the word is repeated, apparently expecting him or her to understand the appropriateness of the word and its many guises all while knowing when and when not to utilize it. This is an impossible task for a child.

Take the word ‘fuck’ for example. Fuck is one of the most diverse and versatile words in English and yet it’s often the most disappointing word that can slither out of a child’s mouth. It’s a verb, both transitive and active. It’s an adverb and a noun. It can signify dismay or stress, trouble or difficulty, even confusion, intolerance, anger, aggression, lust, love, suspicion, or contempt. It can be virtually every part of speech except paternal unless it’s specifically maternal first even when describing someone who is biologically ‘male’ because despite all the motherfuckers I know, both men and women, I’ve yet to meet a fatherfucker of any gender identity.

In the context of children swearing, they do it not for purpose but because it’s normalized. Children can infer regular usage and they learn through frequency and probabilistic methods. A child would not learn any aspect of a language (good or bad) if it was used inconsistently by those they are around most.

For a kid to accurately use one of the many forms of ‘fuck,’ he or she would have to be exposed to the diverse spectrum of usages in order to place their own usage in a fair and understandable context. If a child possesses the cognitive faculties to place ‘fuck’ in the right context, then certainly it is a word that this child hears regularly in most of its forms. By definition alone, it is then a word that should be acceptable to hear from a child, given full comprehension of its uses and an understanding of the unwritten places where it cannot be used. Typically, however, neither situation is reality.

Children are curious and will say these things eventually, but ultimately it is the parent’s fault if it becomes routine. Words are nothing—completely arbitrary—but the intention is what defines it.

“Tha fuck out my way, bitch,” the 12-year-old seventh grader shouted during a class jog around the baseball fields during Phys Ed.

“Hey fuck you, man,” his comrade running just beside him replied.

This is a purposeless exchange with swear words invoked simply for the novelty of it. Because it was an exchange between two 12-year-olds, it seems inappropriate. Would either of these kids have said that if their parents were with me, just inside the playground fence? Even though it was used in jest and as a novelty expression, I fully believe that both kids know full well not to say the same thing in front of their teacher, even if they can’t quite articulate why they shouldn’t say it.

Swearing is not inherently bad so long as the parties involved understand the reasons for invoking swear words and the purpose is not to hurt others. Swearing may even be used as a bonding mechanism between siblings separated by a wide gap in age.

Children should understand what is appropriate and not be taught to hate these things or be punished for using them. By understanding the reasons why adults sometimes use the “bad” words, children can develop their own verbiage consistent with how they want to present themselves. Using swear words everyday will create dependence on them. Using them secretively behind the veiled threats of parental punishment will create stigmas implying that swearing is always bad. Kids are curious and want to behave like adults, the ugliness in childhood swearing is not in the word itself, it’s in the lack of understanding the decorum of expression and that’s not ugliness at all, it’s what it means to be a kid.

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