It’s Good Being Bad: Why Cursing And Arguing Aren’t Terrible For Your Kids

Put away that bar of soap. That little four-letter word might not be that big of a deal.

June 22, 2018
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Most parents want their kids to behave, right? More importantly, we want them to grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted, contributing members of society. This, of course, looks different for many parents. Some parents prioritize academics, while others care more about sports. Other parents don’t care how their kids perform in school or sports, as long as they’re kind.

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Most parents, however, agree about swearing and arguing. When it comes to raising good kids, these bad habits rarely fit into the equation.

Because of this, many parents spend a lot of time working on teaching their kids to avoid “bad” habits. Most often, we teach them not to swear. We break up sibling arguments before they go too far, never giving our children the chance to resolve the conflict themselves.

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As it turns out, not all “bad” habits are truly bad for our kids. There might actually be some benefit to normalizing behaviors typically treated as taboo. Don’t believe us? Check out what the science has to say about giving your children a little more freedom to use their voices.

The Science of Letting it Fly

Let’s take a closer look at the habit of swearing. It might be true that modern parenting culture sees swearing in front of your kids as something to avoid, and a toddler dropping a four-letter word into a conversation is only treated as cute the first time.

Well, the truth is, most parents aren’t actually avoiding this habit of swearing in front of their kids. In fact, 74 percent of moms admit to swearing while their kids are in earshot, according to a survey conducted by, of all groups, Kraft.

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Of course, if swearing in front of your kids has become a habit you indulge in occasionally, you can always make some changes. Maybe you could start up a swearing jar, giving up a quarter every time you make a slip. You could also swap out a few choice words for something a little more innocent.

You could also continue to let it fly. That is what Benjamin Bergen, cognitive scientist and author of What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brain, and Ourselves, believes.

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If research conducted on college students is any indication, there aren’t really any negative effects associated with swearing in front of kids, according to an op-ed Bergen wrote for the LA Times—the only exception being the use of slurs, which have no place in the home (or anywhere). These words, quite obviously, teach children to negatively perceive those being attacked by the slur.

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More interesting, perhaps, is the argument that swearing has a benefit. In an interview with National Geographic, Emma Byrne, author of Swearing is Good for You, pointed to a Keele University experiment in which swearing increased pain tolerance and decreased perceived pain.

An important note, though, is that subsequent research found that habitual swearers experience less relief from swearing during pain. Teaching your children when it’s okay to swear is key.

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Another behavior commonly curbed by mom and dad is arguing. Parents hate when their kids get into it, especially when it disrupts the peace in the home. Telling kids to “be nice” might not be as beneficial as you’d think.

In an article for the Wall Street Journal, Sara Zaske, author of Achtung Baby: An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children, wrote that German parents are more likely to let their kids work things out than to jump in and referee a disagreement. In her experience, that practice is largely beneficial. Instead of trying to solve disagreements, German parents might ask a few leading questions to help a child empathize with the other children involved. Otherwise, kids were left to work things out on their own.

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Allowing your children to fight their own battles provides benefits, like learning to stick up for themselves and how to navigate tricky relationships, reported the Chicago Tribune.

“I think [arguing is] normal for anybody at a young age who is not able to really understand their emotions and the perspectives of others yet,” says parenting coach Antonio Harrison, PhD. “When you’re cramped in a space with people, things are bound to boil over at certain points.”

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In his home, this perspective typically means the parents step back during the little spats or disagreements. Instead, they draw the line when things turn into a physical fight or when name calling is involved.

The Science of Control

Although the specific research on “bad” habits is certainly interesting, it’s worth noting that there is a bigger picture to consider: How do children respond to control? There is a large body of research devoted to examining different styles of parenting and how they affect children.

“It’s important that parents ask themselves ‘What really matters here?’ and ‘What skills do I want my child to learn right now?’”

—Sharon Saline, PsyD

Authoritarian parents are strict, have a lot of rules, and tend to harshly enforce those rules. Authoritative parents, on the other hand, have high expectations of their children but are generally less demanding. They are emotionally engaged with their children and try to offer discipline that will encourage growth.

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Research largely associates authoritarian parenting with negative outcomes for children, like associating being obedient with being loved and struggling with self-control, according to a resource provided by University of California, Los Angeles. This doesn’t mean authoritative parenting is perfect, but it is more likely to produce well-adjusted children with high levels of self-control.

“Hearing a lot of don’ts can be overwhelming for kids,” says Sharon Saline, PsyD, author of What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew: Working Together to Empower Kids for Success in School and Life. “It’s important that parents ask themselves ‘What really matters here?’ and ‘What skills do I want my child to learn right now?’ This means honestly assessing where your child is currently and remembering that learned behaviors build on each other.”

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Harrison believes kids who are completely shielded from adult activities during childhood could enter into adulthood unprepared. In his opinion, it would be more beneficial for parents to be able to model appropriate use of adult language or conflict than for their first exposure to come in a less secure environment.

The Power of Modeling

So when it comes to behavior in childhood, is nothing off limits? That might be taking things a little too far. Instead, taking what we know about swearing, drinking, and conflict into account, along with what we know about healthy parenting styles, it’s worth taking a second look at our parenting choices and making a few adjustments to the way we approach behavior.

“All … parents think that it’s about the kid’s behavior when it is really about the parent’s behavior,” he says. “Kids will follow suit with whatever is given to them consistently.”

—Antonio Harrison, PhD

For Harrison, all of this is part of a bigger lesson about being the type of parents who model healthy behavior. In his mind, it’s not about parents avoiding swears in front of their kids, it’s about the context in which we use the words.

“My family swears in front of our children,” he says. “The key is, we’re not getting belligerent; we’re not swearing like sailors every other word; everything’s in context with whatever we’re doing.”

The important part here is that parents need to be modeling the right choices, according to Harrison. Don’t use hate speech or argue with the intent to hurt. But if you stub your toe and let out a four-letter word, explain that those words aren’t to be used all the time; if you have a disagreement with your partner, settle it empathetically and civilly.

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“All … parents think that it’s about the kid’s behavior when it is really about the parent’s behavior,” he says. “Kids will follow suit with whatever is given to them consistently.”

What about when it’s the child doing the swearing? Harrison suggests parents avoid being too reactive. In his own parenting, he tries to take a step back and consider the context before responding in anger. In some cases, he finds he feels his child’s frustration warranted a slip of the tongue.

Harrison offers two pieces of advice to parents who would like a healthier way to respond to misbehavior in the home.

First, he suggests that parents offer plenty of positive feedback to good behavior. Parents should be speaking up as often, if not more often, when their kids are doing right as they do when they’re doing wrong.

“This doesn’t mean a dessert or a cookie,” he says. “Simply saying, ‘Good job. Thank you. I love you.’ is good enough.”

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Secondly, he strongly encourages parents to wait before they respond to poor behavior. Take a deep breath or walk away. Do what needs to be done to give you a few seconds to think about what happened before firing off. This doesn’t mean there won’t be discipline to follow, it simply means you have the chance to think it through first.

“When something does happen, give it 10 seconds to think about the context of the situation, what was going on, why that happened. You brought yourself down to where you’re thinking as opposed to just spewing things out of your mouth without thinking.”

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Parenting is often not as black and white as it may seem. Whether you’re trying to navigate swearing or arguing in your home, be patient with yourself and your children. With time, you will find the approach that feels the most comfortable for your family and communicates the lessons you most want your children to learn.

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