A sweary child is a comedy staple. An adorable little moppet casually dropping the S-bomb is the appeals-to-everyone gag that never goes out of style. So why do most parents shudder at the thought of their own kid turning round and suggesting they go and eff themselves in their whatevers?
Exposure to swearing is unavoidable – films, games and music are laden with four-letter words, and in these politically turbulent times, every day brings a new story centred around ‘pussy’ or ‘motherfucker’. Yet we still try to protect little ears. Grown adults, adults who have had sex and birthed children and been through all of the drama and hideousness and beauty and tragedy of life, will say things like “oh fudge!” if a child is about.
The difficult thing about trying not to swear in front of them is that children do a lot of things that might cause you to swear. And swearing’s well-documented pain-reducing effects come in extremely handy – anyone who’s taken a jelly shoe to the eye and come out with “heck” deserves a statue built to them.
Here are the six stages of swearing with kids all parents should know about:
1. Adorable Little Shits (0 to 1 year)
It’s a good thing babies don’t really know what’s going on around them, because the language used by parents getting used to sleepless nights, explosive poos and the existential stress of offspring is truly appalling.
Nobody can or should be expected to go through something so life-altering without the freedom to express how goddamn knackered they are or how much they want to have a shit on their own. The baby isn’t listening, hearing or understanding, so fill your boots. Plus babies are so little, so sweet, so perfect, it’s actually (whisper it) really funny to swear around or about them. There’ll be time to modify your language later on, when things get easier. Right?
2. Foul-Mouthed Mimics (2 to 3 years)
Now half the stuff you say is parroted back to you by a tiny person who can sort of speak, but not quite. “Thanks to my loose colourful tongue around the house, my two-year-old has been singing ‘Old Macdonald’s got a ball bag’ for three weeks,” says dad Tom. “Over and over and over. It’s embarrassing. I have to keep preempting and speaking loudly over him when we’re in polite company.”
This is when you can have fun with mispronunciations – kids repeatedly asked to say “fork” or “clock” by parents with tears of laughter streaked down their faces. It’s also what led to Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s famous sketch ‘The Landlord’, in which McKay’s toddler daughter calls Ferrell “a bitch”. McKay got some flak for teaching his daughter the language, something he defended extremely comprehensively in Wired: “[She is] at this phase where she repeats things but doesn’t remember them unless she says it like 20 times... and sure enough she’s never said it since.”
Toddlers have been found to know, on average, six (boys) to eight (girls) swear words, and know that they are often used in times of heightened emotion. Keira Knightley said her three-year-old daughter cried the F-word when Donald Trump was elected and once, following a narrowly-avoided car crash, asked: “Daddy, is this when you say ‘fuck’?”
Even better than the entertainment value of a toddler who sounds like George Carlin, is that using taboo language – not necessarily the Fs and Cs of adulthood, but the “poo-poo head” and “doodie brain” insults youngsters conjure up – coincides with less violent behaviour.
“Swearing replaces biting, hitting, screaming and breath-holding as ways of externalising strong feelings in human children” writes Dr Emma Byrne, author of ‘Swearing Is Good For You’. Most exhausted parents would take a “Shut up, poo-face!” over a screaming fit any day.
[Read More: Things You Only Know If You’re A Parent of Toddlers]
3. Shocked Sweary Sponges (4 to 6 years)
Like the shocked kid in Jerry Maguire whispering “You said fuck!” in horror, children have a complicated relationship with swearing, gasping at broken taboos but fascinated by the breaking of them. “By the time children enter school they have the rudiments of adult swearing, although children and adults differ in their assessments of the inappropriateness of mild taboo words,” concludes the 2013 study, ‘A Child’s Garden of Curses’.
Lots of teachers have stories of children recounting things they’ve seen on TV and completely missing which parts are ruder than others, with results like “And then he says ‘fuck you’ and the other man says he’s going to kick him in the [lowers voice, looks around conspiratorially] arse.”
Taboo language is universal to all cultures, and once someone knows the words, they know them, so why shouldn’t they use them? “My worry with my kids swearing is that it’s like shorthand for a bad kid,” says Will. “We work hard to be good parents, and I wouldn’t want one ‘shit’ slipping out to make us seem like we were doing a terrible job. I feel like once someone hears my six-year-old swearing, she might as well have a fag in her mouth and a big plastic bottle of Strongbow in that person’s eyes.”
“We always tell our daughter off when she says ‘Oh my God’, and correct her to ‘Oh my gosh’” says Mat. “I don’t personally think ‘Oh my God’ is offensive, but I still find it sort of coarse and unpleasant coming from a four-year-old in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. Otherwise we try hard not to swear around her but say things like ‘Oh shit!’ a lot so it’s an uphill struggle.”
4. Evolving Curse Machines (7 to 11 years)
As children become more independent, they’re going to express themselves more colourfully. Emphasis, enthusiasm, outrage – all can result in the air turning blue around prepubescents. This can either sound really cool (‘The Goonies’) or completely hideous (like when the kid from ‘Love, Actually’ says ‘shit’).
By this point, most children at least know what is and isn’t appropriate in certain situations. “I swear in front of my children, and my wife has a mouth like an open sewer, but they don’t swear in front of us,” says Dick, a father of three daughters. “They don’t say ‘crap’, ‘fart’ or even ‘bum’. We tried not to swear in front of them until they were eight or nine, old enough to understand the idea that there is a time and a place for it, and that you need not to do it at the wrong times or in the wrong places. We had an ongoing conversation about it, and about how I want them to be better than I am.”
Attempts at self-censorship are questionable, especially given everyone’s endless exposure to profanity in popular culture. “My sister is quite an aggressive driver, but tries to censor herself when her kids are in the car,” says mum Kate. “She says things like ‘fricking’, but when you’re muttering under your breath, it sounds exactly the same as ‘fucking’. Also, if you’re saying ‘I’m going to fucking kill you’ to another motorist, the ‘fucking’ bit isn’t necessarily the part you don’t want your kids hearing.”
5. The Luck Pushing Years (12 to 14 years)
This is the golden era of boundary-pushing, when you find as many excuses as possible to use gentle swearwords like ‘crap’, ‘arse’ and ‘bastard’ in conversation with adults in a bid to seem grown-up. And if you’re quoting someone, woof, fill your boots. “Steve told me to fuck off and I told him I wouldn’t” is reportage, not swearing, surely, mum? Quotes, impressions and faux-naive questions are all beloved tools of the precocious swearer yet to be hit by the humourless train of adolescence.
6. The All-Bets-Are-Off Bit (15 to 18 years)
Nobody’s ever slammed a door and shouted “I flipping hate you!” Teenage trauma, hormone-led illogic, frustratingly greasy faces and the non-stop horror of teenagers (being one or parenting one) mean everyone has bigger battles to fight than a bit of bad language. As the parent-child dynamic flip-flops between nemeses and quasi-equals, down come all the walls. There’ll be times talking to your teenage children when whatever you say you won’t be listened to, won’t be heard, won’t be understood – just like when they were babies! Everything comes full circle, or should we say, full fucking circle...