I settled in to listen to my daughter read from one of her library books. Suddenly she stopped mid-sentence and asked, “Mommy, what do these symbols mean?”
I looked at the page of her chapter book from a trusted children’s publisher and found the main character’s exclamation, “What the $#&@!”
Although the profanity was disguised, my daughter’s reaction spoke volumes about its impact. She didn’t simply gloss over the word choice, she stuck on it and became distracted from the story.
At first, I was upset the publisher felt the need to put profanity, full-on or edited, in a children’s book…about a cat.
After researching the topic and asking the opinions of other parents, however, I began to see a bigger picture emerge about the issue of profanity and children.
I began to see the importance of teaching kids profanity, but doing so with purpose.
I vividly recall the moment as a child when I unwittingly dropped an F-bomb in a conversation with an adult. I had heard the word somewhere, didn’t understand it, and, like most children do, tried it on for size.
It didn’t go well.
Parents want to shield their innocent offspring but the reality is kids hear profanity more often than parents may realize. With television, music, playground chatter, books, and other influences, profanity can populate kids’ daily lives in multiple ways.
I would rather be the one to carefully, purposefully introduce these words to my children. Not to give them an encyclopedic repertoire of curse words, but to arm them with at least the biggies.
Children need to understand if they are being insulted or abused, or being inappropriate themselves.
Profanity is indeed “just words” humans made up, but the fact profanity is mere vocal utterances is not the sticking point. The intention behind the words’ usage is the point.
That intention is not pure. Profane words were not created for, nor are they used in, situations of purity. In other words, they do not align with commonly agreed-upon manners.
Parents want their children to possess manners and show respect for others. If this is the goal, then kids need to understand showing respect includes avoiding language that will potentially offend the person or people with whom they speak.
Society was once more careful about vulgarity. The Emily Post Institute still touts the properness of avoiding swear words in mixed company.
Regardless if kids come from homes where profanity is disallowed, they need to understand the varying beliefs about profanity usage and the importance of not holding everyone to the same expectation.
The exception to this is any expectation set by adults within their own domain. My family’s house rule, for instance, is profanity shall not be used by family members or guests. Kids need to understand the expectations in their home, classroom, and other regular situations, and be held accountable to them.
Renowned entrepreneurial guru Michael Hyatt echoed many in the business world when he took a firm stance against profanity in the public realm.
“If you can’t be interesting without profanity, then let’s face it: you’re not that interesting,” Hyatt said.
His statement has research backing.
A 2012 study by CareerBuilder.com showed 81 percent of employers believe cursing diminishes an employee's professionalism, which makes a significant difference come promotion time. The same study found 54 percent of employers thought swearing made their employees seem less intelligent. Whether this perception matches reality is debatable. Still, the potential social cost is clear.
Additionally, a 2011 University of Arizona study by Matthias Mehl and Megan Robbins found a correlation between profanity use in cancer-stricken women and diminished emotional support from others.
"The take-home is that people are sort of repelled by counterstereotypical behavior,” Robbins told Elle Magazine.
Although using profanity is a personal choice, kids need to be aware of possible ramifications in certain contexts.
Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. were all amazing, storied orators who did not a single use of profanity in their speeches. This is worth noting. These orators stirred up strong, powerful emotions within their audiences without using profanity to do so.
Many of the greatest language artists this world has ever known understood that well-placed emotional words and breadth of vocabulary can have far greater staying power than speech filled with bleeps.
The more context kids have for profanity, they better they are able to make informed decisions about whether to use it and, if they do, when and how.
Presenting them with a full picture of what profanity is, why it’s used, and what it means to use it allows them to be better prepared for the real real world and to be able to make choices they can stand behind.