Shit, my kid started swearing
Why you shouldn't freak out if your kid curses, what you should do instead, and why I stand by my use of the word "asshole."
Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science journalist and author Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.
Today, I’m going to answer a question that’s really more of an amalgamation of questions I’ve gotten from people over the the past few months:
What should I do if my kid swears, and also, doesn’t your use of the word “asshole” work directly against your goal? Isn’t the normalization of swear words a key part of what’s wrong with the world today and of how people become assholes?
Some people love to hate my book (and newsletter) title. One person left a one-star review of my book on Amazon because of the word “asshole,” even though they also conceded that “I suspect we agree on much - both the substance of what's needed, and the urgency.” (Feel free to vote that review down, or drown it out with one of your own.) A woman also called my local bookstore in a tizzy a few months ago to warn them against my book because of she was so offended by the title. She later wrote me a scathing message on Facebook that was itself not entirely free of profanity and concluded with this very confusing claim: “In our ‘anything goes’ society, you parents are living by the old rules which included manners and respect.” I think she meant we aren’t living by them? Still, this gets at a question I want to unpack: Are manners and refinement integral aspects of being a good human being? If you use the word asshole, does that automatically make you one yourself?
Here’s my (perhaps unsurprising) take: No and no. First, let’s explore where the modern concept of “bad language” came from. The notion has been around for centuries, but profanity and vulgarity became a much bigger cultural touchstone in late 17th century England, when the modern English middle class was born (in part because middle-class occupations like shopkeeping became much more popular). This new, growing middle class desperately wanted to distinguish itself from the working class, so it created new etiquette “rules” that would make doing so easier. One of these new rules was that bad language was, suddenly, extremely unacceptable. As Lancaster University linguist Tony McEnery wrote in his 2005 book Swearing in English, “the middle-class moral reformers identified bad language as something which was morally wrong and hence not a signifier of middle-class status.”
Put another way, swearing did not earn its bad reputation because it’s harmful or mean, but because these words provided an easy way for an insecure middle class to prove their worth — as well as to identify and disparage the lower class. “It is what I would call a form of linguistic snobbery,” explained Timothy Jay, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, who has studied swearing and its impacts for decades. Put another way, “bad” words became powerful not because they are intrinsically powerful, but because they incited strong emotional reactions among people who had decided, for their own benefit, that the words were unacceptable.
This is not to say that swear words do not have real power. Of course they do. Among other things, words that are used to target and discriminate against individuals or groups can cause real harm. (In general, the larger the socioeconomic gap between the person swearing and the person being sweared at, the more offensive it feels.) But many words, including “shit” and “asshole,” are not intrinsically harmful, just emotive. As Jay explained in a 2009 paper, “there is obvious overlap between taboo words and abusive speech, but they are not the same.” Many people use swear words to express strong feelings, and in this way they can actually be valuable. There’s something far more satisfying about saying shit! rather than shoot! when you step on a Lego, and research actually finds that swearing makes people feel less pain. (And I’m all for the healthy expression of emotions, as anyone who’s read my book knows.)
Also, for what it’s worth, the popular claim that language is going to hell in a handbasket is also. . . probably not true. Yes, some groups of people are swearing more than they used to (most notably women, because finally, it is starting to be OK for us to be real people). But overall, there’s little evidence that foul language has become much more mainstream. In fact, some research suggests the opposite: A scientific analysis of language in teen movies found that in 2006, movies had much less cursing in them than they did in the 1980s, and I suspect the trend has continued downward. During the pandemic, I watched Splash! and Adventures in Babysitting with my kids and was shocked by how much cursing there was (and rather disturbed by how much sexism and sexualization was being passed off as humor).
To summarize: Whether or not a person uses swear words has no bearing on their moral character. These are completely distinct phenomena. Sure, people who are nasty might use swear words while they are being nasty, but to deem swear words themselves as “bad” or “immoral” is to fall prey to classist thinking borne out of 17th century social angst.
Now onto more pragmatic questions (because I know you’re all here for the parenting advice): What does it mean if my kid swears, and what should I do about it?
According to Jay, who has also written a book called What To Do When Your Kids Talk Dirty, all kids learn how to swear. It’s part of learning the language and becoming literate, he said. There is literally nothing you can do to shield your child from hearing, saying and eventually understanding the meaning of words like fuck, shit, dammit, and crap, and furthermore, “learning how to swear and expressing yourself emotionally is an is a natural, normal, common, everyday experience,” Jay asserted to me.
Here’s a fascinating table Jay created based on his research, which shows just how many swear words kids usually know at various ages. (I am especially intrigued by how/why 3- to 4-year-old girls know and use more swear words than 5 to 6-year-old girls do and wonder if it is related to the internalization of gender stereotypes.)
So anyway, OK: What should we do when our kids inevitably swear? Other than to recognize that it does not mean they’re assholes? I talked about this in my book, but here’s a short primer.
Stay calm and ask questions.
When we lose our shit upon hearing our kid say shit, we only give the word (and, by extension, our child) more power. “By making an emotional issue out of this, you, the parents or caregivers, have given this emotional currency,” Jay said. Put another way, by freaking out when your kid yells motherfucker!, you’re telling your kid that they have just gotten hold of something really powerful, something that makes mom and dad angry — something they should definitely yell as loudly as possible when they want to rile us up. Bonus points if they do it in a crowded grocery store.
Also, it’s important to remember that kids will sometimes parrot words they have heard without knowing what they mean. So if your 3-year-old has just yelled motherfucker upon dropping his lovie in the toilet, he may well not know what motherfucker means — he may have assumed it was an appropriate word to utter in anger, probably because of that one time you muttered it after discovering you’d forgotten to run the dishwasher. Instead of yelling at him, instead pause, take a deep breath and say, “That’s an interesting word. Where did you hear it?” or “What did you mean by that?” That way you’ll get a sense for what your kid understands and, perhaps more importantly, what he doesn’t.
Provide reasonable limits that are aimed at helping your child learn social rules.
Think about when and where you think it’s appropriate for your kid to use swear words. Is the answer is “never ever,” you may want to reconsider — because by prohibiting words entirely, you just give them more power, as I explained above. You are essentially telling your kid here’s something you can say to make mommy and daddy super mad.
A better option is explain to your kid contexts in which swear words are OK to use. Maybe you say they can say shit as much as they want to when they’re in their room, or when they’re around their friends but not other grown-ups. Or perhaps you say it’s fine to use those words at home, but that they can never say them in public (including at school).
Ultimately, the goal isn’t to eliminate these words from your kid’s vocabulary — you can’t — but rather to help them understand social etiquette.
Explain how words can hurt.
When we talk to kids about swear words, we also need to explain that words can have different effects on different people, and that context matters. Even if dammit isn’t a particularly bad word in your home, explain that some people (like maybe Grandma and Grandpa) really don’t like the word and it makes them upset, so it’s best to avoid using the word around them. Kids get that we have to tweak our behavior, appearance and choices depending on who’s around us — heck, they see us doing it every time we rush to brush our hair before a work Zoom.
Also, saying motherfucker! when you drop a bowling ball on your foot is very different from calling your sister a motherfucker, so you may also want to explain that it’s never OK to call other people mean names, including or especially when those names involve swear words.
It’s also totally fine to create strict rules around certain words — words, for instance, that are racial or sexist slurs meant to harm or demean. If your kid has just said one of these words, remember again to stay calm and gather information (“Where did you hear that?” “What does that mean to you?”). Then, after taking a deep breath, calmly explain that the word is extremely hurtful, and that it’s never OK to say because of how much damage it can do. You can even explain that there are federal laws that prohibit language that constitutes sexual harassment or racial or gender discrimination.
Housekeeping: If you haven’t yet subscribed to my paid newsletter, you’re missing out! We’ve had some wonderful and supportive discussions in the weekly threads, and last Friday I discussed why migraines are a big parenting issue and how to prevent and treat them (including news about new drugs that have fewer side effects). Subscribe now to read these posts, contribute to the threads and get access to all the archives!
Very excited that Is My Kid the Asshole? was featured in Parents magazine this week, in an excellent story by Maressa Brown about elementary school homework. Hooray!
I was also quoted in a great Yahoo News article yesterday by Korin Miller about the importance of gender neutral toys.