What’s in a swear? Parents of teens debate

March 25, 2018 - 09:00

Do you know anyone who has never uttered a swear word? The answer is almost certainly no: swearing is almost as universal as speech itself. But many of us still believe that swearing is linked to bad behaviour.

Illustration by Trịnh Lập
Viet Nam News

by Mai Phương

Do you know anyone who has never uttered a swear word?

The answer is almost certainly no: swearing is almost as universal as speech itself. But many of us still believe that swearing is linked to bad behaviour, and that our own loved ones would never use such shameful language. Certainly, I believed that my own children had never so much as thought these words.

Last week, I opened my computer to find that my 14 year-old daughter had left her Facebook messenger account open and active. I was shocked to find that her conversations with classmates were filled with an abundance of swear words. They covered all the bases as far as swear words go. There were those referring to sexual references, those that are profane or blasphemous, scatological or disgusting objects, animal names, ethnic/racial/gender slurs and ancestral allusions. 

Summoning all of my courage to learn the truth about my beloved child, I read all the way to the end. I found that they were chatting about the homework that their teacher had urged them to finish that day, but they were unable to find solutions, so they had to ask for help from their sisters and brothers.

With only the mild topic of how to do their homework—not a quarrel or a fight—the teenagers, both the younger and older ones, had used almost 20 swear words in their 15 minutes of chatting. Unimaginable!

What had led my daughter to use such speech? She is a good child who makes me proud. Did the speech indicate some aspect of her character I had not previously been aware of? Like other parents of teenagers, I am gradually accepting that my daughter has a private life that is beyond my control and out of my sight. But did her swearing mean that I wouldn’t like what I might see if I could?

The thing made me so angrily curious that I confronted her immediately.

Her response was cavalier. She said using such words is no big deal—they’re normal in her daily life. She insisted that swearing while talking illustrated nothing about her character, and using bold words could even make her feel better and more confident. My other daughter agreed with her.

Amid my shock, I have to admit I was pleased when their protestations took a scholarly turn. They presented me with an article by a psychologist named John D. Grohol entitled “Why do we swear?” The article cited research by psychology professor Timothy Jay, who answered that question and provided a clear-headed defence of the practice—or at least an explanation that cast it in a more acceptable light.
“Swearing is like using the horn on your car, which can be used to signify a number of emotions (e.g. anger, frustration, joy, surprise),” Jay writes.

Like a car horn, swearing has a particular purpose beyond just making noise: “Swearing injects a direct, succinct emotional component into the discussion.” Of course, that has a dark side. Swears are often used to call people names or wish harm on them. At the worst, they can be used to intensify speech that was already deplorable, including hate speech, abuse and harassment.  

But swear words can serve a positive purpose. They can be used as “jokes and humor, sex talk, storytelling, self-deprecation or even social commentary,” Grohol writes. “When you want to emphasize how great you think something is, a swear word emphasises the positive feelings you have for that object, situation, person or event.”

My despair at my daughter’s swearing was (grudgingly) relenting. I was particularly pleased to read the following: "Swearing is a natural part of human speech development. We learn which words are taboo and which words are not through our normal childhood development," Grohol writes.

This seemed to imply that whatever words she was using could be a youthful persona she was trying out, and would learn to put away in more formal settings and when speaking with adults and people who are not her peers.

I did still wonder what my role in all of this was. I searched online and found Dr Phạm Hiền, a psychologist who wrote on her website that while children’s swearing may indicate a lack of education or parental care, sometimes young people use taboo words to express their emotions in a strong way, without paying attention to the meaning of the words.

She appealed for parents to understand the true nature of their children’s word choices so to appropriately deal with their situation. As soon as a child starts to swear, parents should correct the behavior immediately so that it does not become a habit.

"That act of prevention is very important because it will help the child understand that they should give it up,” said Hiền.

My attempts to prevent my children from swearing while talking to their peers, in private forums like a group message, fell on deaf (or rather, unhearing) ears. In fact, they insisted I had no right to criticise them unless they directed the words at me. I found myself still wishing they would use more polite language, but with less of a sense of panic than before.

I also learned that I am not alone. At my office, several other parents told me they’ve had the similarly jarring experience of overseeing a well-behaved and much-doted-on child’s potty-mouthed messages to friends. We all concluded that while we might not like it, we need to accept it as part of their lives, which are increasingly independent as they age.

And ultimately, I realised that while I had been trying to teach my children a lesson about appropriate language, they had taught me one: casual language like swear words and slang do not always indicate the user is some kind of monster.

Still, I hope they grow out of it. VNS