MELBOURNE: Parents can often find themselves staring in bewilderment at the little human they helped to create.
Sometimes this bewilderment is centred around awe and amazement. Sometimes it is firmly entrenched in shock and embarrassment about a specific behaviour they have just witnessed.
When a child swears it can be the latter that engulfs us.
There is little evidence to suggest children’s swearing, or swearing in general, has become more frequent. But in 2013, a United States study found by the time children start school “they have the rudiments of adult swearing” (about 42 taboo words).
Parental reactions to children’s swearing are generally cultural, embedded in context, and dependent on who else witnesses the behaviour and how the swearing makes them feel at that moment.
Sometimes parents might look at children’s swearing as bad behaviour that needs to be dealt with. At other times they might perceive swearing as no big deal. In some situations they may even see it as funny.
These reactions are also entangled in emotion and mood and are not typically consistent. This can be confusing for children.
In English-speaking cultures, there are unspoken social rules on who can say what to whom and in what situation. Research suggests men are more likely to swear in public than women and are less likely to be judged negatively if they do so.
Stand-up comedians swear a lot in their performances – and this is seen as funny and acceptable. But if a Member of Parliament swore in parliament, there would likely be a national outcry.
Similarly, while many adults swear, it is not seen as appropriate for children. This is tied to historical perceptions of the child as innocent and good. As well as the idea that childhood is a special time in human development and parents are responsible for shaping and protecting their offspring.