Do your kids swear? Where do you think they learned the words?
A new study investigates the ways in which children and adults use ‘swear’ words and how that language develops from early childhood through early adolescence.
The results may help guide parents to think about the language they use with their children and to help their children negotiate language appropriate for different situations.
Swearing and Children: The Research
The research comprised two parts.
First, observers tracked adult and child use of taboo words in natural settings such as parks, daycares, and bars. In order to fully capture the different abusive language that might be used by children versus adults, observers were asked to include “swear words” as well as any words that carried negative emotional force.
For example, while the word “baby” is not generally a taboo word in an adult context, it is often used by preschoolers in the context and with the intention of an insult.
Second, children and their caregivers were asked to evaluate taboo words, stating whether a word presented to them was “good,” “bad,” or they “didn’t know.”
In an interview with Decoded Parenting, researcher Timothy Jay, professor of psychology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, noted that since this was the first study of its kind, the researchers were cautious in presenting taboo words to children. Words that are generally accepted as highly offensive in American English were not included, and caregivers pre-approved the word list on an individual basis, removing any words they did not want their children exposed to.
Research Shows Children Mimic Adult Word Use
Children’s acquisition of taboo words generally mirrors overall language acquisition. There is a tremendous surge in the use of swear words between the ages of 1 and 4 when general language use expands.
Preschoolers are especially attracted to taboo words (particularly those describing parts of the body or bodily functions) and are learning how to use words as name-calling, psychosocial insults, and gender-based insults. Only 14% of children 6 and older chose the “don’t know” option for any of the words presented to them, meaning that by the time children reach school age, they have at least heard all of the terms.
While men and women generally use taboo words with the same frequency (a change from a similar study performed 20 years ago), boys and girls differ in their usage. 3-4 year old girls used taboo words more frequently than boys, possibly because girls tend to talk earlier than boys and by age two have, on average, twice the vocabulary. Between ages 5 and 12, however, boys not only swear more often than girls, but have a larger lexicon of taboo words.
Most Frequent Swear Words Used By Kids
The top three most frequent taboo words used by children are the same as the top three used by adults, with each successive age group of children getting closer to adult-like patterns.
One of the most important aspects Dr. Jay says he would like parents to understand from the study is that children will learn swearing and taboo words when the words are part of the culture surrounding them.
He says, “Parents often worry that their children’s language and behavior reflects what happens in the home. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t … Regardless of the language you use at home, children will pick up words at school, daycare, the playground.”
How Should Parents React When Children Swear?
Given that hearing these words is inevitable, what should a parent do when their little sweeties start repeating them?
Dr. Jay offers advice for parents in his book, “What to Do When Your Kids Talk Dirty.” He says that a parent’s action depends on the child’s age and their intent. First, determine why the child is using a taboo word – is it to get a reaction from a caregiver or because his sister just stole his toy?
Is she screaming the word into the air or directing the term at a specific person? If the child’s intent is to express frustration or to emotionally insult or harm another person, Dr. Jay suggests that parents deal with swearing in the same way that they would deal with any other hurtful behavior.
Parents need to teach children appropriate and constructive ways to express frustration and problem solving and social skills necessary to get along with others.
If the intent of using a taboo word is to get a reaction, the best thing to do with preschoolers and younger children is to first, control one’s own emotions. A parent can calmly let a child know that the particular term is not one used in this family house and leave it at that. There is no need to explain the term or why it is offensive.
With elementary school-aged children, parents can initiate a non-judgmental discussion by noting, “That’s an interesting word. Do you know what it means?” As with younger children, there is no real need to define terms for children unless they ask, but parents do want to be aware of the language children are exposed to. If young children practice coming to parents with new vocabulary, they will be more likely to continue to open up to parents when they are teenagers.
Not until early adolescence are children completely capable of understanding (and exploiting) the social nuances of language. At this point, parents can discuss why and where different language may be appropriate in different settings with different groups of people.
What Should Parents Do When Children Hear Them Swear?
Dr. Jay claims that practically all parents have rules against swearing in the house, but that practically all parents swear. “This doesn’t make them hypocritical,” he says, “it makes them human.” Dr. Jay thinks that it can be good for children to see that all people have emotions and sometimes get angry or frustrated. When parents swear, they can use it as a teachable moment. It is fine for parents to recognize the moment, apologize, and state how they plan to work through future situations.
Dr. Jay believes the real goal is trust. From the very beginning – when children are potty training and those first “taboo” words are part of the experience – children look to parents to see how they handle the situation. Can parents talk about what is happening and what children can expect, without getting uncomfortable or sidetracked by the terms? (Dr. Jay prefers using clinical terms when talking to children about parts of the body.) And, as children get older, can they focus on the message, the intent, rather than the language used to express it?
Preschooler to Teenager: Swearing is an Important Topic
At some point, every preschooler will grow into a teenager. Parents want to lay the groundwork for open dialogue about off-color language, new situations, and observations about culture early so that adolescents will feel comfortable sharing their mistakes and concerns – with whatever language necessary. While the specific taboo words may change from generation to generation, children absorbing language, adolescents pushing boundaries, and the need for parents to pass along their values does not.