It's Kind of Fucking Pointless to Shield Kids from Swearwords

Kids are "little language vacuum cleaners," according to a new study that finds that children are pretty good at cursing by the time they're 5 or 6 years old. While parents have an impulse to shield their kids from bad words, it might actually be an exercise in futility.

A report by Kristin Jay and Timothy Jay, psychologists and "experts in swearing," published in American Journal of Psychology, finds that as soon as kids begin talking they pick up foul language. By the time they are entering kindergarten, boys' vocabulary typically contains about 34 "bad" words, while girls' contains about 21.

"By the time they're heading off to school at 5 or 6, they have a pretty well-developed vocabulary of bad things to say," Timothy Jay says.

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Jay says that kids learn language not just from their parents but from their friends, siblings and pop culture. While parents may want to keep the swearing down in front of their kids, they won't be able to prevent them from learning those words, even at a very early age. What parents can do, says Jay, is teach children the nuances of cursing, when it is or isn't appropriate.

Because curse words seem to live in a different part of the brain than the rest of our language—the part that mediates emotion and habitual movements—cursing is often an emotional response. We might curse when we're feeling pain or fear or pleasure. So punishing a kid who swears won't really dissuade the kid from doing it again, according to Jay.

"Try to figure out first why the kids are using this kind of language," he says. "Expect it to be there. Expect your kids to be angry and frustrated at times, and sometimes this language seems kind of natural to them."

Instead, Jay says that there are positive aspects to cursing that people, young and old, should embrace.

"Their use in humor, their use in bonding, their use as a relief from pain or venting or frustration — I look at this as an evolutionary advantage. Why would we have this language? It must do something for us."