How do you respond to your kids when they swear? Is it worse to tell someone to ‘shut-up’ or to casually drop an f-bomb? Does swearing include blasphemy?
Swearing is one of those behaviours that parents and schools make firm decisions about; however, we rarely explain to kids why those decisions are made. It is also a topic that evokes enormous differences of opinion, even within a school or family.
Kids can have strong opinions about swearing too. Today a student was telling me how uncomfortable she is when her friends swear and her almost visceral reaction to particular ‘bad’ words. We also talked about why kids swear.
1. Swearing for some kids is about empowerment
School is a highly monitored environment. We have a lot of rules. A lot! Kids follow strict timetables and they have limited choices in how their day plays out. In Australia we even make them dress in the same outfit.
All of this rule-following can be disempowering. There is empowerment in swearing. It breaks the rules without causing too much damage. It usually happens covertly, away from a parent or teacher’s hearing. The words chosen are usually taboo, related to religion, sex or a slur.
Some things to consider:
Often when we talk to kids about their swearing, we are talking at cross purposes. Adults are talking about respect for other people and are thinking about the meaning of the words, whereas kids are driven by rebellion, or wanting to fit in, or they’re not thinking at all.
2. Swearing is used frequently at home
When I was about three, I was in the ute with my dad checking cattle on our farm. I pointed to a cow and said, “There’s Buddy Swan!” My dad was confused but I kept saying, “Buddy Swan, Buddy Swan. His name is Buddy Swan!”. It turned out I did have the right cow, but dad had been calling it a ‘bloody swine’ for breaking down fences. He was very conscious of his language in front of me after that.
In some cultures and families, swearing is considered fine. I have no problems with that, it is a personal decision. However, it is important to recognise that kids aren’t very good at judging context or code shifting. They will keep swearing in public and more sensitive situations if they swear at home.
Something to consider:
A child’s attitude towards swearing will be largely determined by how their parents view it. However, most of us don’t examine our own beliefs around language.
3. Swearing is a way of creating identity
Adolescence is a time in a child’s life when they are unconsciously crafting an identity. The way they speak is one of the things that they have control over. Swearing is simultaneously breaking boundaries and identifying them as part of their peer group. Using the ‘right’ swear words helps define kids as ‘in’ or ‘out’. It is little surprise that the use of swear words tends to peak in the teen years and decrease thereafter.
Something to consider:
We need to talk to kids about what they want to be known for in their peer groups and the wider community. Is it swearing?
4. Swearing shows strong emotion and reduces pain
Sometimes we swear when we are really angry or frustrated or in pain. It’s as though the rest of our vocabulary is just not going to cut it in those circumstances. We tend to spit out one-syllable words that articulate emotion very clearly and succinctly. It happens in all cultures. Scientists have found that in these circumstances the words are coming from a different part of the brain than our usual language. It is more emotional. They have also found that swearing can reduce pain!
Something to consider:
The times when we swear because of sudden pain or shock are very rare. If kids are swearing to express emotional pain and frustration built up over a long period, we need to be teaching them how to relieve those feelings earlier and more effectively.
As a teacher, when I do correct kids for swearing, they receive one of the following talks. If they’re particularly unlucky, they get a mash-up of all four.
1. If you’re going to use language to express yourself powerfully, be clever; not foul, sexist, homophobic or racist. The words you use have power. Be funny. Be thought-provoking. Be quirky.
2. No matter what sort of language you use, don’t use words as weapons. You can never take your words back.
3. If you’re going to swear, know your audience. Don’t assume that the people around you are okay with swearing, even in your peer group.
3. Just because you can swear, doesn’t mean you should.
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Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-eight years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single-sex and co-ed. Currently, she is a writer, speaker and consultant in Western Australia. You can find out more about her work here.