PARENTS

Does It Matter If You Swear In Front Of Your Children?

08/04/2015 17:27 | Updated 08 June 2015

Surprised female infant closeup portrait

The "Does it matter if you swear in front of your children?" debate is usually dominated by two extremes: the po-faced and those with a mouth like a sewer. But what about people (surely most of us) who let slip every now and then?

I would never swear at anyone. But I can't imagine anything but a four letter word slipping out when I stub my toe. I actually believe it helps with the healing process. And sometimes, when I'm really animated about something, then yes I find myself impulsively adding a swear word for extra colour.

Thinking about it, can there really be any parent who hasn't accidentally cursed in front of their kids?

My own kids are seven and five years old and their reaction, if they notice at all, is a faint look of disapproval. They know these words are naughty – I tell them that myself. It's the reason I don't use them very much. But I also tell them that they're only for grown-ups. Lots of things in life are only for grown-ups, as all kids know, so there's no reason for them not to accept that. Everyone's a winner.

For now anyway. Indeed, I'm sure many of you are thinking, "Just you wait." But it's not inevitable kids will copy swearing, says Dr Fiona Starr, associate professor in psychology at Middlesex University and Chartered Clinical Psychologist.

"As for those who do, as they mature and have their own views about swearing, they may choose not and may even abhor it. Certainly in adolescence, some sons and daughters do become somewhat prudish and haughty about their parents 'adolescent behaviours' and swearing falls into this category," she says.

In any case, there are other words and phrases I'd be far more concerned about hearing my kids regularly use.

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"Hate," "stupid," "idiot" and "Shut up" are never classed as curse words, but when I hear children say any of them, it makes me go cold.

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These are the kinds of words I'd like to see eliminated from my kids' vocabularies and I have told them so often.

As blogger David Hesser has pointed in his own musings on the matter, these words dismiss people, experiences and ideas in an instant and that's (a) horrible and (b) not something that kids have been around long enough to be able to do.

As for younger kids, aged two or three, repeating swear words without even realising what they are doing, then yes it can cause a brief moment of panic. But most parents quickly realise that ignoring them usually means they don't do it again.

Dr Carol Burniston, clinical child psychologist, agrees it's ridiculous to think that a bit of swearing here and there is harmful to kids. "Clearly children learn by example so if you swear, they are more likely to do so and to think it's acceptable. But it's how you swear that will have the real impact. If you let out a mouthful of abuse, then laugh, then it's going to make them think swearing is far more acceptable than if you let slip every now and then and follow it up with, 'Ooops, mummy said a bad word.'"

It's not as if all swear words are the same, she adds. "Shit is hardly the same as using the c-word, which a lot of women in particular find repulsive and offensive. Swear words are on a continuum. Also, swearing in an aggressive way or as an insult is a world away from using it instead of 'Oh dear.'"

Sometimes we underestimate how much children get context, she believes. "Most children get that there is appropriate language for different settings and that there are some words not everyone likes."

Let's face it, she adds, it's unlikely that kids are going to get through their whole childhood without hearing swearing, if only from a building site they're passing.

Sometimes, if I go through a period of thinking perhaps it's time to curb my bad language once and for all and I catch myself in the act, I quickly amend the sounds to feck, duck and shoot. But (a) I don't think it makes any difference to what the kids think, (b) everyone knows what I really mean and (c) it's daft when the intent is the same. In fact, I now find myself feeling quite irritated when I hear these pseudo-swear words.

So to the occasional cursers out there, I say let the colourful language continue. As long as you're focusing on bringing your children up to be nice and respectful to others, never hitting and never calling other names, then does it really matter if they grow up hearing their parents experimenting with language from time to time?

What do you think?