Many parents have stories of the time their cherub-faced little one dropped an f-bomb in polite company – leaving them a tad mortified. It's a parenting milestone that's not necessarily in the books, but one that happens to most of us as our kids absorb the world – and the language – around them.
New parent and cognitive scientist Benjamin Bergen – who also possesses a profanity-seasoned vocabulary –found himself watching his language after the birth of his son.
"Something deep in my subconscious told me that profanity might harm him in some way," he writes in the Los Angeles Times, "that even a fleeting expletive, like a curse word uttered while stumbling over a child gate, could do lasting damage."
As a researcher who specialises in language, Bergen who authored, What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains and Ourselves, decided to investigate. Is swearing around our kids really that bad? Why? (Bergen clarifies that he is not talking about swearing at children, noting that verbal abuse is known to be psychologically damaging.)
What Bergen found, however, was that clear research evidence was lacking – for obvious reasons.
"As far as I know, scientists have never conducted a controlled experiment aimed at uncovering the consequences of swearing in front of children," Bergen writes, describing that ethically, you can't justify exposing five-year-olds to heavy profanity use.
Grownups however, are a different story entirely. And, as Bergen identifies, "we can extrapolate to children from experimental research conducted with adults."
Such research has uncovered that slurs, rather than swearing, are harmful. In one study, 61 participants were exposed to a homosexual slur or a neutral label. Those who saw the slur sat farther away from a person they believed to be gay than those who saw the neutral label.
When it comes to children, Bergen notes that one study of 143 middle school students found that children exposed to more homophobic slurs were more likely to report feeling less connected to their school lives. In addition, they also showed symptoms of anxiety and depression.
And yet, as Bergen highlights, "there's no similar proof that exposure to ordinary profanity — four-letter words — causes any sort of direct harm: no increased aggression, stunted vocabulary, numbed emotions or anything else." If anything, Bergen describes, 18-year-olds who swear more tend to have bigger vocabularies.
When it comes down to it however, as Bergen notes, most parents are fearful of using bad language lest their children copy them - and deploy their own f-bombs.
Writing on the science of swearing for the Association for Psychological Science, Professor of psychology Timothy Jay and assistant professor Kristin Janschewitz, describe that according to their data, swearing emerges by around age two and becomes adult-like by ages 11 or 12. In fact, Jay and Janschewitz report that by the time children start school, "they have a working vocabulary of 30 – 40 offensive words."
According to Bergen, however, the largest observational study on childhood swearing (researchers recorded children aged one to 12 naturally using swear words) found that it is "largely innocuous".
Despite the fact that there's no evidence that being exposed to or using what Bergen terms "run-of-the-mill" profanity, many parents – for a number of reasons – simply don't like the idea of their children swearing.
"We were taught that these are words you don't say in certain circumstances," Bergen said in an interview with Gizmodo.
"It's really the social consequences that are the only rational argument for watching your language around children. They may end up incurring social costs for using these words in the wrong way."
For Bergen, the compromise was this: rather than censoring himself, when he does happen to swear around his son, he uses the opportunity to provide some "coaching". And, as you'll find out, it's something most parents do naturally after they let one slip.
"I engage him in an honest dialogue about why some words are OK in some places, but not others," Bergen writes. "Even a two-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."
Through coaching, Bergen notes, "parents can help children develop a healthy relationship with their native tongue, including the parts that allow them to communicate their strongest emotions."
Do you swear around your children? Have your kids ever embarrassed you by swearing?