Years ago, as my husband and I cradled our newborn baby boy in our arms, we didn’t realize that one of the most difficult challenges ahead of us would be controlling our potty mouths. Of course we didn’t censor ourselves initially, but once he started talking, we were much more careful about what we said. As a kid, I loved George Carlin’s dirty word list, so it took a lot of practice for “Oh gosh!” and “Darn!” to become my go-to exclamations.
Looks like all that effort to shield our son from profanity might not have been necessary, at least according to Benjamin Bergen, professor of cognitive science at UC San Diego and author of “What the F: What Swearing Reveals About our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves.” His observational study has found childhood production of taboo utterances to be mostly harmless and, rather than motivated by anger, often used for positive reasons like humor.
Professor Bergen notes that parents are concerned less about kids hearing profanity and more about kids turning around and using it—which can reflect negatively on the child, as well as on the family. His compromise?
I don’t censor myself because I know my child won’t suffer cognitive or emotional damage; and I don’t try to stop him from parroting me, in large part because I’m not delusional enough to think that would work. But when I happen to swear around my kid, I provide some coaching. I engage him in an honest dialogue about why some words are OK in some places, but not others. Even a 2-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.
Whether necessary or not, I should have known that my efforts to shield my son would be short-lived, and that once he started reading, the bathroom stalls at his public school would become his teacher. At 10, he’s now watched PG and PG-13 movies, where he’s been exposed to just about everything out there. I’ve been surprised, though—and quite frankly, relieved—at his ability to understand and laugh when appropriate, but also respect the boundaries of appropriate language in daily life. And I can now be a little less careful with my exclamations when I trip over a backpack left in the middle of the floor, or when I drop a whole egg with shell into a spinning Mixmaster.