I totally feel the mother who wrote "5 Reasons I Don't Give An Eff About Swearing In Front Of My Kids" on Scary Mommy recently. Maybe you do too.

"I need to give true voice to my feelings as I dig the embedded Lego Batman from my heel (ahhhgain), remove the sock from the toilet bowl ('But Mom! It looked like a paper towel'), bake and frost 24 cupcakes at 1 a.m. for the class party at 8 a.m., try to make sense of third-grade math (just no), or switch lanes on the BQE while three kids argue to the death about which of them likes cheese the most (seriously, and it's me)," writes Kate Levkoff on the site. "I need everyone to shut the f*** up and calm the f*** down, so Mommy can figure this out."

As a veteran potty mouth myself, I've struggled to get my swearing under control now that my daughter has reached the "repeat everything mommy says fairly accurately" age. So I was thrilled by Levkoff's insistence that it's OK to basically give up this (losing) battle. Parenting is hard, she argues. You deserve to curse a blue streak when circumstances call for it if it'll make us feel better.

But, then you think (as parents so often do) am I just being selfish? I love the idea that I can give my profane tendencies free rein, but am am I harming my kid if I do? Thankfully, science (or at least one scientist) has an answer to this question -- and it's just the answer I was hoping to hear.

Stop feeling so effing guilty already.

Benjamin Bergen, is a cognitive scientist at UC San Diego and the author of the new book What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves . In an LA Times op-ed recently he also declared himself to be a lover of profanity -- even around his own child (hat tip to Quartz for the pointer).

Of course, there are caveats. Swearing at your kids in anger is a terrible idea. There's no excuse for that. Hate-filled slurs are also obviously destructive and off limits. And as with all things, some degree of moderation is assumed. But if you just need to let off a little steam by using a four-letter word once in awhile, go for it. There's no proof, he argues,

that exposure to ordinary profanity -- four-letter words -- causes any sort of direct harm: no increased aggression, stunted vocabulary, numbed emotions or anything else.

Of course, parents aren't holding their tongues solely because they think hearing a bad word will turn their kid into a criminal. They also worry that the kid will turn around and use it. And yet the largest observational study -- again we don't have controlled experiments -- found that childhood swearing is largely innocuous. Scientists documented children ages 1 to 12 naturally producing thousands of taboo utterances, and only rarely witnessed negative repercussions. On no occasion did swearing lead to physical violence. Instead, taboo words were used mostly for positive reasons, for instance humor, and mostly were not produced out of anger.

Which isn't to say that if you say the f-word around your toddler you won't be mortified to hear him or her soon parroting it back at nursery school. That could happen. What it does mean, is that once kids are old enough to understand the finer points of language (and according to Bergen, that's probably younger than you imagine), there's no cause for guilt if you use (and they pick up) some less-than-demure language.

Striking the right balance

In fact, a frank discussion of profanity and its uses might be beneficial, Bergen believes. He uses this practical approach to swearing in front of his kids, recommending it to other parents as well:

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.

The result of this policy, he argues, is kids that are situation sensitive and well versed in employing all aspects of language.

Are you buying Bergen's argument?

Published on: Oct 7, 2016
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