How do young children learn to swear – and why do they seem to do it at the most inappropriate moments?
Recently, a group of parents have become convinced that the Minion toys in McDonald’s Happy Meals are saying, “What the f—k!” To protest, they have taken to the airwaves to warn others about the potentially corrupting influence of the mealtime treat.
McDonald’s responded to the criticism by explaining that Minions are just speaking Minionese, “a random combination of languages and nonsense words.” The company says nothing they say can be translated into any known language.
As a child psychologist and early childhood educator, I study how children learn to communicate their feelings – and am well-acquainted with their ability to use new words at the most embarrassing moments.
So, are children today swearing more than they did previously? Well – yes and no.
Why children curse
Children are learning to swear at an earlier age. Timothy Jay, a psychology professor, suggests that the rise in profanity among children is not surprising, given the general rise in the use of swearing among adults since the 1980’s.
“By the time kids go to school now, they’re saying all the words that we try to protect them from on television,” says Jay. “We find that swearing really takes off between (ages) three and four.”
However, children do not appear yet to be using worse swear words than in the past – just common swear words more often, according to the new research.
When young children swear before the age of two or three years old, they are usually just repeating what they have heard. Because they are learning to use language to communicate, children mimic words to make sounds and to see how those around them will respond. Through these responses, children come to understand what the words mean.
So, before taking your young child’s insult to heart, it may be important to realize that she may have no idea what she is actually saying.
When slightly older, children swear for different reasons. If they do not hear a word often, they may be using it because they do not understand that it is offensive.
Perhaps they have heard it pass through the lips of someone they admire. And they say it in an attempt to be similarly cool. Or, they might just like the sound of it.
By the time children are in pre-K and kindergarten, they often begin to realize that curse words are offensive and may quit swearing on their own. But, as I have found in my clinical work, they may still “drop the bomb” when they are scared, feeling frustrated or want to hurt others.
While working as a school counselor, I found that some children like the attention receive when “talking dirty” and may use profanity to show off in front of their peers.
When words have superpowers
As I have found in my work, when words get an extreme reaction, children are more likely to view that word as important and retain it for future use.
Likewise, given that most people curse when they are frustrated, shocked, thrilled, or otherwise emotionally charged, profanity is usually uttered with a little extra “oomph!”
Children in the midst of developing their own vocabularies are like language vacuum cleaners, sucking up as many words as they can. Emotionally charged expletives stand out like superheroes.
Though they may not know what they mean, curse words are internalized as words with superpowers. And they get used when normal words just won’t fit the bill.
That’s why children often curse at the most embarrassing moments – when visiting the dentist for the first time, in the grocery checkout aisle when told they can’t have a package of gum, on the first day of school or when your boss is invited over for dinner.
In each of these examples, children might be confronting new or different expectations, experiencing fear, frustration or disappointment, or receiving less attention than might be typical.
Likewise, during times when you are distracted, nervous or frustrated, your child’s anxiety may also be heightened. Because they have learned, perhaps from you, that curse words are for moments when we aren’t really sure what else to say, it often seems that they let them fly when we most wish they would not.
How to clean up the potty mouth
To prevent younger children from cursing, prevention is the best strategy.
If children are not exposed to profanity, they will not begin using it. Though television, cartoons and the world at large are full of curse words, children are most likely to hear adult language at home.
It may not help that parents can sometimes be hypocritical when it comes to swearing. Nearly two-thirds of adults surveyed who had rules about their children swearing at home found that they broke their own rules on a regular basis.
This sends a mixed, confusing message about swearing and when it’s appropriate.
For older children, understanding why your child is cursing and what the cursing is meant to communicate is important in determining how best to respond. For example, if the child swears only when frustrated, he may not have another way to express himself.
Suggesting more acceptable language or providing more constructive outlets for his frustration will redirect the behavior. And cursing should diminish.
So, if the “Minions parents” are talking too much about “WTF” in front of their children, they can be sure that their children will likely be using the expression the next time they need to communicate a big emotion.
My advice: if they don’t like what the toys are saying, throw them away and don’t make a big deal out of it!
Travis Wright does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
Authors: The Conversation