Growing up, my mom’s “potty mouth” consisted of words like “sugar!” and “fudge!” - and those were only uttered in the most serious of circumstances. One stubbed toe, and no baking ingredient was off the table. Perhaps that’s why, even though I’m turning 40 this year, I have yet to utter a profanity in the presence of my parents.
This isn’t because I don’t swear (I have three kids and zero patience - trust me, it slips), but because I was raised in a swear-free home, where the use of cuss words was associated with unintelligence and deemed “unladylike.”
Imagine my horror when my littlest child, with her cherubic face and innocent eyes, looked at me one day and dropped an F bomb like it was just another letter in the alphabet. I knew that freaking out would only encourage a repeat of the word, so instead, I spoke to her calmly with a straight face, explaining that her word choice was inappropriate.
The reality is, keeping kids completely curse-free is a challenge. Covering a child’s ears or flashing dirty looks when curse words are uttered in public isn’t going to keep their young ears expletive-free, especially when surrounded by cringe-worthy songs that drop unexpected profanities, and careless uncles who curse copiously.
If your child utters the ‘F’ word, don’t worry, science says it’s OK. According to Dr. Emma Byrne, a scientist in the field of artificial intelligence and the author of Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language,“learning how to use swearing effectively, with the support of empathetic adults, is far better than trying to ban children from using such language.”
Byrne’s argument is backed by research that has found that profanity soothes the brain, reduces anxiety and even relieves pain. The self-titled “Sweary Scientist” disagrees with the tendency for parents to wait until their children are older to discuss the use of strong language, opting instead to allow the use of swear words from an earlier age.
What is most intriguing, is the research that ties potty mouths to pain thresholds. In an article in Wired titled “The Science of Why Swearing Reduces Pain," psychologist and author of Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad, Richard Stephens, discovers through conducting various tests that swearing can be an effective pain killer.
When exploring the association between pain and swearing, Stephens found that “minced oaths” - those socially acceptable versions of swearing that we use when we might be overheard, didn’t have the same healing effect as the harsher swear words. Through his studies, he found that stronger swear words were stronger painkillers.
I don’t mind letting my kids experiment with swearing, but there’s a caveat to cursing. If they’re going to let profanities fly, they have to know that there’s a time and a place. A pain-filled profanity after a stubbed toe is one thing, but ill-intended name calling is never acceptable. Kids are going to experiment with language, so I’d prefer that they do so in my presence.
Bianca Bujan is a mom of three, writer, editor and marketing consultant. Find her online at @bitsofbee.