(While setting up this site in September 2020 I went looking for articles to add to it from my scattered archives. This is one that I came across that I wrote after I did a training course at work where I was required to give a presentation to the group on a subject other than my work. This was the subject of my presentation and several people asked me if they could have a copy of the material so I wrote this article based on it. The version here is slightly revised to suit this context.)

I am the sad sort of person that is really only interested in one thing and I am lucky enough to do that for a living, so coming up with a presentation outside the scope of work was quite difficult. However, while I was discussing this assignment with my wife in the pub at the weekend a stranger said something to me which gave me a great subject: they asked me not to swear in front of their kids. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard the idea that you shouldn’t swear in front of children and it’s something I’ve given a bit of thought to over the years, especially since having kids of my own. I’ll leave it to you to imagine how the discussion was going at the time this kind stranger gave me the idea for my presentation.

Before wondering whether we should swear in front of our kids, perhaps we should first ask: why swear at all? A lot of people seem to think that swearing is a bad thing in general and that you shouldn’t do it for any reason. Nonetheless most people evidently do, and most of those who claim not to often just substitute their own words, which seems to me to be exactly the same thing in effect. Swearing in a different language is still swearing, and saying “frick” expresses a well understood sentiment regardless of word choice.

In my mind, if you never swear then you’ll have no outlet for strong emotions nor any way to communicate them to others. I consider that to be dangerous. Those emotions will build up over time and eventually the consequences will be bad. At best you’ll become increasingly unhappy and your mental health will deteriorate. At worst another outlet will be found and that’s not likely to be better than swearing in any way.

Although I think it’s a good idea to swear when you need to, I also think it’s a bad idea to swear too much. If you over use swear words they will lose their potency, earning the contempt bred of familiarity. They will cease to express anything powerful and will become just another part of your everyday speech. Once that happens you’ll have no outlet for strong emotions and the consequences will be exactly as if you don’t swear at all. Swear words used too frequently cease to function as swear words.

On the scale of a whole society, I think that excessive swearing leads to violence but I also think that complete abstinence isn’t much better, if at all. We must seek moderation, at a level compatible with the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Having said all that, I still think children shouldn’t swear at all and I forbade mine to do so. The reason for this is that swearing can have unwanted consequences if you do it at the wrong time or in the wrong place, in front of the wrong people. Children will find it difficult to gauge when, where and how to do it. To avoid the consequences of those mistakes, which are often not well tolerated in our society, I counseled mine to simply not swear at all. That’s common advice that is easy to understand and should be easy to follow.

So given all the foregoing, why do people think we shouldn’t swear in front of children? There seem to be a number of reasons:

  • They won’t like it. That might be true but, if so, it’s learned behaviour that we don’t have to teach them. In any case it’s often wrong – in my experience many children love to hear people swear!
  • It will somehow damage them. That’s just nonsense. Words have the impact we imbue them with. If we teach children that swear words will hurt them then that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Unlike playing with fire or jumping out of high windows, we can easily teach children not to be hurt by swear words.
  • They might copy you. That might be true and, as previously said, I agree that children shouldn’t swear. But if you don’t want your kids to swear and you have so little control over their behaviour that it’s easier to try and manage the behaviour of everybody else in the world than to try to manage your kids’ then you’ve got far worse problems than people swearing in front of your children.

We do lots of things in front of children that they are not themselves allowed to do: using sharp knives, cooking, lighting fires, driving cars, drinking alcohol, crossing the road, etc, etc. These are all adult activities and our task as parents is to make sure that by the time our kids are adults they know how to do them properly and safely. Swear words are adult words and we should teach our kids the right way to use them.

We must accept that our kids will hear a lot of swearing - they will hear it on TV, they will hear it in the playground, they will hear it on the street. There is no avoiding it and asking people not to swear in front of your kids for fear that they will copy it is a futile abdication of responsibility.

For reasons already described, I think it’s important that we should swear sometimes and of course it’s important that we only do it at the right times and in the right places and in an appropriate way. Similarly, it is inevitable that we will hear a lot of swearing in our lives and it is important that we aren’t unduly upset by it and don’t let it colour our thinking about important things. All of this is learned behaviour with complex subtleties and traps for the unwary. If our kids are to get on in the world this is an important part of what they must learn and the best way for them to do that is to be exposed to good examples. But until they have learned to swear properly I think it’s better for them to avoid swearing completely in order to be sure they don’t suffer the consequences of the mistakes they might make.

That’s why I swear in front of my kids when I feel like it but I also tell them that swear words are adult words and they aren’t to use them until they are adults - they are the sharp knives of language, to be used with care and not brandished on a whim.

So next time someone asks you not to swear in front of their children, you know what to say!

Merlyn Kline
October 2017