Education
4:00 pm
Sun April 20, 2014

'Like Little Language Vacuum Cleaners,' Kids Suck Up Swear Words

Originally published on Mon April 21, 2014 9:49 am

Most parents are pretty concerned about their kids using foul language.

Dr. Timothy Jay, a psychologist and expert in swearing, says parents worried about bad words might be fighting a losing battle.

"As soon as kids start talking, they pick up this kind of language," Jay says. "They're like little language vacuum cleaners, so they repeat what they hear."

They pick it up from parents, as much as they may try to hide it, from siblings and peers and from entertainment. Jay, a professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, examines when and why children incorporate taboo language into their lexicons in a recent paper in the American Journal of Psychology.

"By the time they're heading off to school at 5 or 6, they have a pretty well-developed vocabulary of bad things to say," he says.

As much as it may be frowned upon, Jay says it's not necessarily bad to swear in front of kids.

"I think it's part of them learning about their emotions and emotional expression and how their parents handle emotion," Jay says. "So I think if you look at it as just part of being angry or frustrated or happy or surprised, that is all normal. That's built into all of us."

He says it's each parent's job to teach children the nuances of language and when profanity is and isn't appropriate. If a child is swearing, punishment won't necessarily dissuade it.

"Try to figure out first why the kids are using this kind of language," he says. "Expect it to be there. Expect your kids to be angry and frustrated at times, and sometimes this language seems kind of natural to them."

Jay says there are positive consequences of swearing that are largely disregarded. He is working to develop the social, cognitive science of swearing, which affronts the major perception of cursing as an immoral use of language.

"A lot of times you don't get to the argument about the positive uses of these [words]," Jay says. "Their use in humor, their use in bonding, their use as a relief from pain or venting or frustration — I look at this as an evolutionary advantage. Why would we have this language? It must do something for us."

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, we created a place to sit and talk about kids and everything to do with being a parent. Have a seat at the Kids Table.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING)

RATH: Every parent is thrilled when their child says their first word. When they say their first swear word, not so much. But that is a normal development when it comes to language. Dr. Timothy Jay is a psychologist and an expert in swearing. He says parents worried about bad words might be fighting a losing battle.

TIMOTHY JAY: As soon as kids start talking, they pick up this kind of language. You know, they pick up the taboo words from hearing their parents or their siblings use it. And they're like little language vacuum cleaners, so they repeat what they hear. By the time they are heading off to school at 5 or 6, they have a pretty well-developed vocabulary of bad things to say.

RATH: So does that mean that kids are picking it up from their parents, or do we have a sense of where it comes from, where they acquire it?

: They pick it up from their parents. You know, their parents will have rules against swearing in the house but they still swear. They pick it up from their siblings. And certainly they pick it up from their peers.

RATH: So from a clinical, from a psychological perspective, is it bad to swear in front of kids?

: No. I think it's part of them learning about their emotions and emotional expression. If you look at it as just a part of being angry or frustrated or happy or surprised, that is all normal. That's built into all of us.

So does that mean that I should just let my kids say whatever they want? And they'll be listening to this, by the way.

It's your job to teach your kids the nuances of this language, like, well, it's OK to say that here. It's OK to say it in the house or in the backyard. You do want to teach them how to manage their emotions, and the language is just part of that. So. try to figure out first why the kid is using this kind of language, expect it to be there, expect it, you know, your kids to be angry and frustrated at times. And sometimes this language seems kind of natural to them.

RATH: One of the things we tried with our kids, my wife and I started using substitute words. But the funny thing is they just adopt those. And in a way it almost sounds worse to hear a 4-year-old saying: Mom, the bath is too freaking hot.

: Yeah, euphemisms are pretty common. Sort of one of the other things underlying this is, like, how are we going to talk about our bodies? How are we going to talk about what comes out of our bodies? How are we going to talk about sexuality? I try to use with my daughter clinical terms which are pretty acceptable anywhere and then you don't have to have the burden of having two or three vocabularies, one that you use at home and one you use around mom and one you use around your friends.

RATH: You write that the positive consequences of swearing are commonly disregarded in the media.

: Well, we're trying to develop the social science, the cognitive science of swearing. And it affronts, I think, the major perception of this as sort of a moral, religious view of bad language or dirty words. A lot of times you don't get to the argument about the positive uses of these. So, certainly their use in humor, their use in bonding, their use as a relief from pain or venting, frustration; I look at this as an evolutionary advantage, why would we have this language? It must do something for us.

RATH: Would you help me write a letter to the FCC?

: Yeah, I'd be happy to write a letter to the FCC.

(SOUNDBITE OF LANGUAGE)

RATH: Excellent. We'll get in tough about that. That's psychologist Timothy Jay, an expert in cursing. Dr. Jay, thank you.

: Well, I'm darn glad to be here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Coming up, Jordi Savall, a legendary figure in the world of early music, and a guy who knows how to live dangerously. For a concert benefiting victims of the siege in Sarajevo, he assembled an orchestra made up of people who are likely to hate each other.

JORDI SAVALL: Serbian musicians, Bosnian musicians, Armenian musicians - Jordi's crazy to bring all these people together, you know.

RATH: But the results were magnificent. Jordi Savall is my guest in the next part of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.