“Philip Pullman Litters New Children’s Book With Swear Words.” So ran the Daily Mail’s headline introducing pearl-clutching coverage of his bad language in the newly published La Belle Sauvage. Its 500 words of faux outrage (fauxtrage?) over a novel containing the words “bollocks”, “bastards” and “fuck” began with with the stunning news that: “By his own admission, some of [his] fans are as young as seven”, seemingly inviting us to imagine some poor, innocent cherub asking: “Mummy, what is bollocks?”
What’s bollocks is the idea that a seven-year-old doesn’t have a firm grip on at least the rudiments of bad language. This degree of manufactured ire is comical to anyone familiar with the latest research about children and their swearing habits. The vast majority of kids know (and use) taboo language fluently by the time they leave nursery.
In the fantastically named paper A Child’s Garden of Curses, cognitive neuroscientist Kristin Jay and professor of psychology Timothy Jay studied children from one to 12 years old. They found that, aged one to two, boys know six swearwords on average, while girls know eight. Among three- to four-year-olds, girls still outstrip boys, cursing on average 140 times while they were being observed, while boys recorded a mere 99 rude words. By the time they are on the verge of their teens, though, boys outstrip girls: 335 recorded incidents of swearing, to girls’ 112.
So Pullman’s audience is definitely familiar with swearing, and it’s doing them no harm. On the contrary, learning to curse is an essential part of development. Children learn which words best express which emotions in exactly the same way that they learn everything: by watching us. Repeatedly attaching the “F-word” to the experience of someone’s poor driving is probably teaching my daughter a lot about both the acceptable expression of one’s emotional state (only with the car windows up) and what constitutes bad road skills. (I am slightly worried that she will grow up believing that the correct terminology for a turn signal is “fucking indicate”, but that should make driving lessons fun).
Children also learn, from a surprisingly early age, that swearing isn’t all negative. Research shows that swearing is linked with all kinds of emotional states, including joy, surprise and fear. By learning to swear, children learn to understand other people’s feelings in a more nuanced way. “Children learn that curse words intensify emotions in a manner that non-curse words cannot achieve,” says Professor Jay. But the biggest advantage, from my perspective as a parent, comes from studies dating back as far as the 1930s, which show that swearing quickly replaces biting, hitting, and screaming as children develop. To which I must say, thank fuck for that.
Pullman’s understanding of the way children speak is a lot more realistic than the Daily Mail’s take. By using curse words in his latest book, he’s just reflecting the language that they use and hear. Swearing helps us bond together, to feel more resilient in the face of adversity. All languages have some form of taboo that is used to express strong emotions; chimpanzees that learn sign language invent their own scatological swearing as soon as they’re potty trained. And swearing is deeply woven into the structure of our brains, surviving strokes and head injuries even when other language deserts us.
We do our children a disservice if we try to shield them from “bad” language: whether they use it often or rarely, they will need it as part of their emotional lexicon. There are some feelings that ordinary words just can’t do justice to. Children get a better handle on swearing when they learn it from responsible adults rather than picking it up in the playground. It’s a bit like the French approach to drinking: a bit of watered-down wine with dinner teaches children the appropriate way to enjoy it.
Children learn to swear from their parents first and foremost. The Jays research shows that even those parents who say that they forbid their children from swearing tend to drop the odd curse. In the face of this hypocrisy, children end up confused about the appropriate deployment of the F-bomb. It’s far better to clearly model the proper uses of strong language – such as when you drop a hammer on your foot, when you’re excited, or you see some egregious driving. Or, in my case, when I read a poorly-researched, lukewarm take on swearing in a book.
- Dr Emma Byrne is an artificial intelligence researcher and the author of Swearing Is Good for You, published by Profile in November.