So you banged your knee on the coffee table, set off a string of 4 letter words, and now your half-toddler, half-parrot is going full Ricky on Trailer Park Boys. Is this a language emergency? Benjamin Bergen Professor Of Neuroscience at the University Of California San Diego says it’s not a big f—ing deal. He wrote a primer about the power of profanity, What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, and says cursing in front of your kids isn’t as damning as everyone thinks. Here are his thoughts on the science of swearing, from why it feels so good to drop an F-bomb to the one thing you should never do after letting loose in front of your kids.
Bad Words Are Actually Pretty Good Words
Take a minute to appreciate the beauty of a bad word. Bergan says curse words are pretty effing great as a form of communication. First, they’re phonetically effective. They’re short and sharp. Their meanings are connected to body parts and/or functions we generally like to keep private (like doing taxes). Bergan finds all this funny because there’s nothing intrinsically bad about them. “It’s an arbitrary social norm,” he says. “This is a taboo we have. Why is shit is bad but we talk all the time about going poo in the potty? Why do we have that arbitrary decision?” In other words, the distinction is pretty crappy.
Swearing Is Physiologically Important
“People are more likely to swear when they’re in states of heightened emotional arousal,” says Bergen. No effing shit. But here’s the interesting part: When you hear curse words it sets off something similar to your fight or flight response. Blood flows to your extremities. Your pupils dilate. Your heart rate increases. At the same time, your brain also spikes production of hype-up neurochemicals like adrenaline and norephedrine.
This, per Bergen, is a necessary physiological distraction. Because some evidence shows that curse words provide emotional releases in stressful situations. “You get a jolt of adrenaline and you can burn a little of it off,” he says. “This also draws your attention away from some other thing.”
Basically, things that are emotionally arousing allow you to ignore a lot of the noise around you. And if the noise you’re trying to ignore is pain, Bergan says cursing serves a big benefit.
Sorry, But Bad Language Still Makes You Look Like A Bad Parent
Swearing may be physiologically beneficial, but Bergan says it doesn’t mean society will back up cursing a blue streak. “It’s not true that people who are less educated or have less emotional control use profanity more in the home,” he said. “But people have those stereotypes and so you’ll be judged.” So when you get that teacher’s note saying your kid dropped a 10-megaton f-bomb on a classmate — that’s really a note for you.
And Don’t Make A Habit Of Swearing At Kids
While Bergan is blase about swearing around your kids once in a while, cursing at them is definitely not a good idea. Even if it’s playful, kids know the words have power. “There’s a lot of evidence that verbal abuse causes harm,” says Bergen. “Verbal abuse includes a whole array of things, like telling kids they’re worthless or threatening harm. That can be using profane language or not.”
Punishment Sends the Wrong Lesson
Don’t tell your kids words are bad. Why? For the same reason you want a chalupa more when your doctor says you shouldn’t have them: forbidding something only makes it stronger. Your kid will remember the response the word provoked and want to use it again. “That soap in the mouth is a lesson children learn and carry with them for a lifetime,” says Bergen. “Whatever that word was, they’ll think ‘boy that’s a good word. That’s a powerful word.’” Power = desire. And desire leads to a mouth that’ dirtier than a state fair port-o-potty.