Sometimes I swear around my kids. I'm not particularly proud of that; as a writer and editor, I should be able to control my language use. But there are times when I'm so frustrated — with parenting, with politics, with kitchen mishaps — that a profanity just flies out, almost unwittingly.
There are different types of curse words, and studies have shown some are more damaging to children than others. For example, swearing at them, instead of just in front of them, qualifies as verbal abuse. And this 2014 study of middle-schoolers showed that slurs perpetuate bullying, sexual violence and cause feelings of anxiety and depression. But "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," according to Benjamin Bergen, a linguist in the Cognitive Science Department at UC San Diego and author of "What the F: What Swearing Reveals about Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves."
According to Bergen, I shouldn't beat myself up if I let a choice word fly when I realize I'm locked out of the house in the rain with the kids. After all, swearing does have some benefits: It can be cathartic, ease pain and help you feel in control. But I don't completely buy his argument that just because there's no scientific proof means it's not damaging. Plus, as Quartz notes, Bergen didn’t find any controlled scientific experiments about swearing in front of children because it isn’t ethical to subject a kid to profanity for the sake of science.
A tricky social construct
If anything, the reason we frown upon swearing near children isn't due to developmental harm; it's to conform to societal norms. We consider certain words offensive and unutterable, which is why our eyes widen when a 12-year-old shrieks them at the playground or we cringe when a 6-year-old has learned a new gesture, courtesy of older kids on the school bus. As Bergen's book description says:
We all accept all limits on swearing — tacitly, through censorship, and actively, as we hold our tongues around children in the vain effort to shield them. We even punish children for uttering, in passing, the very same words that we use to release tension, express pain, or inflame passions. Swearing is the part of us that we selectively deny. We rely on it to express emotions and cement social relations while at the same time we act as though it didn't exist.
Bergen says that, like so much in life, it's about balance. His policy is not to censor himself around his young child, but to explain the words he uses and their appropriate use, Quartz reports. "He concludes that '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.'"
When we speak normally, we use the language center of the brain, including Broca's area and Wernicke's area. But when we curse, we use a different portion of the brain: the amygdala. (Photo: Designua/Shutterstock)
It's not just society that differentiates between curses and other words. Our brains do, too.
When we speak normally, we use parts of the brain called Broca’s area or Wernicke’s area, according to the Harvard Science Review. But when we swear, we use the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system, one of the primitive parts of the brain responsible for processing emotion and memory. In other words, when you slam your toe into your dresser in the middle of the night and yell out a four-letter word, it's more of a primal response and less of a controlled one.
Two conditions offer evidence that the brain treats curse words differently from regular speech. The first is Tourette’s syndrome (TS), a neurological condition characterized by involuntary behavioral tics, including uncontrolled outbursts of cursing. The second is aphasia, a specific loss of language caused by brain damage or dementia, according to Northwestern University. People with aphasia have impaired speech but can produce curse words with more ease and regularity than other words.
But it's worth noting: people with those conditions who swear (loudly and repeatedly) in public likely won't get a free pass from onlookers who don't know the whole story. And if your child is using similar language, she won't either.