Why you shouldn’t shout at children when they swear

·3-min read
Children walking with parent
Children walking with parent

If a child ever utters an occasional F-word they heard on TV, or repeats the S-word they heard at school, it is easy to feel like a bad role model.

But parents should think twice before chastising them because scientists now think that children do not understand the meaning of curse words until they are teenagers.

It is widely thought that a child’s exposure to expletives as a youngster can make them more likely to swear in adult life, but there is little evidence to support this.

Experts are now challenging conventional wisdom and say it may not be until adolescence that youngsters fully understand the taboo.

“It is a definite possibility that children do not understand the actual meaning of swear words that they use,” Dr Karyn Stapleton, a senior lecturer in interpersonal communication at Ulster University, told The Telegraph.

“However, I think a key point is that they do understand (or very quickly acquire an understanding of) the power that swear words hold.

“Adolescence is not usually considered in hypothesising the effects of swearing but we suggest that it might be a particularly fruitful site for research.”

'Reminiscence bump'

The impact of curse words may be most profound in adolescence as a result of the “reminiscence bump” phenomenon, she added.

This occurs in one’s teen years and forges deep lifelong bonds to music, art and other memories.

When people look back on their early adult life or teen years with extreme fondness, their rose-tinted glasses are often a result of the reminiscence bump.

Experts now suspect swearing may also fall into the same category, with our teenage years dictating how cuss words entrench themselves in our vernacular for the rest of our lives.

“The ‘power’ of swearing for individuals (i.e the bodily, emotional, cognitive and relational effects such as pain relief, increased attention and raised heart rate) might be formed, at least in part, during adolescence,” Dr Stapleton said.

Research has shown swearing is a form of catharsis and emotional release as well as boosting pain relief, enhancing physical strength and building trust.

But scientists do not yet know where, when or how swearing obtains this power which makes it distinct from all other forms of language.

Adolescent memories and 'power of swearing'

Previous studies claimed the power of swearing comes from our childhood when we are admonished and punished for using banned expletives.

Dr Stapleton says that while this is possible, a review she led earlier this year and published in Lingua revealed there was very little evidence to back this up.

“We are suggesting that adolescence might be a significant time for forming experiences, associations and memories of swearing,” Prof Stapleton said.

“We are suggesting, as an area for future research, that memories and associations formed during adolescence might, like our memories for music released at this time, remain salient in later life.”

The scientists say this is not yet proven, but is a possibility which should be explored further.

“It might well be the case that adolescent memories (many of which might be positive) play a formative role in the ‘power of swearing’ – in addition to the more commonly posited role of childhood memories of punishment and admonition,” Dr Stapleton said.

Another unanswered question is whether swearing will lose some of its potency in the future as it becomes more socially acceptable to younger generations.

“As swearing becomes more common (e.g. with the use of social media), it is, perhaps, inevitable that it will lose some of its ‘shock’ value in many contexts and thus, arguably, its potential to offend,” Dr Stapleton said.

But she adds that the very nature of swearing means it always has the potential to offend, even if it does not.