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Survey Confirms Kids and Parents’ Attitudes Towards Swearing



Both adults and children swear all the time, yet pretend they don't while in front of each other,” states reddit user u/GstyTsy on r/ShowerThoughts, a forum dedicated to noting “oddities within the familiar.” 


The user’s statement may be worth further discussion. Is there research or data to back up the validity of the statement? What is the relevance of these findings, even for people who don’t have kids? (Figure 1)


Figure 1: A Kid’s Possible Response To Swearing

These findings could be interesting to people who interact with kids (such as siblings and community members) or simply people with an interest in the linguistic and sociological aspects of swearing. 


Survey Setup: 


To investigate this, I administered a survey to a small focus group of parents and people in their late teens/early twenties, and saw if their responses aligned with existing research and expert opinions. The survey included a closed-ended question asking their age, and then an open-ended question asking, “What is/was your family's general attitude towards swearing? Include as much detail as you feel comfortable with.”


All respondents have been anonymized and assigned a letter for the purposes of discussion: 


Respondent A: Age 21

Respondent B: Age 18

Respondent C: Age 50

Respondent D: Age 20

Respondent E: Age 54

Respondent F: Age 18

Respondent G: Age 18.


Family Values and Swearing: 


Amy Morin, a Licensed clinical social worker who focuses a lot on parenting, explains that family values play a huge role in how parents handle swearing in children.

There are various family values reflected in the respondents’ answers. Some people feel genuine offense upon hearing swear words, which is reflected in respondent C’s answer that states, “swearing is bad and not used with family…it’s equivalent to disrespect.” Respondent E states that in their household, “Parents always reprimand kids for using swearing words.”


Some families are strict with children swearing, but the adults do swear. For example, participant F states that their family has “a no tolerance policy for swearing. It felt a little hypocritical because my dad would swear but never explained why me and my brother weren't allowed to.” 


Respondent A’s family is more lenient when it comes to swearing. They state, “my parents handled swearing in a way that allowed it and acknowledged that it does happen, but also showed that it wasn’t the most acceptable way to get across how we felt.” 


Other responses can be assumed to be somewhere in the middle, such as respondent B who simply stated, “they don’t like it,” without any information on the reactions or consequences for swearing. 


For families that do not want their children to swear, it makes sense why adults pretend that they do not swear. Same principle would apply to children in that scenario - they do not want to be reprimanded for swearing, thus they also pretend that they do not swear. In families like Participant F’s, it would only be the children doing the pretending. 


Context of Swearing: 


Morin states how the context of swearing is a big factor in how swearing is dealt with. “A 5-year-old repeating a word that they heard on the bus is very different from a 15-year-old swearing at a teacher,” writes Morin. 


Context is a piece in respondent G’s answer that states, “Joking using swearing is fine, but towards someone in a serious manner [really isn’t cool].” Same with respondent C who states that swearing is “mostly fine, just know your audience.” 


Swearing and Emotional Development: 


Karyn Stapleton, a faculty member of Ulster University, and her associates wrote an academic article about the effects of swearing. Stapleton makes it clear that swearing is a distinct part of language that has a broad range of effects, including “physiological, cognitive, emotional, pain-relieving, interactional and rhetorical.”


Survey responses show that some families try to make room for exploring these effects of swearing as a natural part of emotional development. Participant A states, “my family encouraged us to describe our emotions beyond swear words, for example instead of saying ‘sh*t’ we would be encouraged to elaborate further and say something like 'that wasn’t what I was hoping to have happen.’”


This is surprisingly also seen in families that are stricter on swearing, such as participant F’s. They explain, “My mom got more lenient as I got older but isn't a fan of it, she understands frustration gets in the way sometimes.” 

However, in families like respondents A’s. There would be no reason for any adult or child to pretend that they don’t swear. If someone is holding their tongue when there’s a swear word on the tip of it, that’s not necessarily a case of pretending they don’t swear, but an effort to find a better way to express themselves.

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