'Like Little Language Vacuum Cleaners,' Kids Suck Up Swear Words | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

'Like Little Language Vacuum Cleaners,' Kids Suck Up Swear Words

Play associated audio
Dr. Timothy Jay says children are like "little language vacuum cleaners" that pick up whatever they hear.
iStockphoto.com
Dr. Timothy Jay says children are like "little language vacuum cleaners" that pick up whatever they hear.

Most parents are pretty concerned about their kids using foul language.

Dr. Timothy Jay, a psychologist and expert in swearing, says parents worried about bad words might be fighting a losing battle.

"As soon as kids start talking, they pick up this kind of language," Jay says. "They're like little language vacuum cleaners, so they repeat what they hear."

They pick it up from parents — as much as they may try to hide it — from siblings and peers, and entertainment. Jay, a professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, examines when and why children incorporate taboo language into their lexicons in recent paper in the American Journal of Psychology.

"By the time they're heading off to school at 5 or 6, they have a pretty well-developed vocabulary of bad things to say," he says.

As much as it may be frowned upon, Jay says it's not necessarily bad to swear in front of kids.

"I think it's part of them learning about their emotions and emotional expression and how their parents handle emotion," Jays says. "So I think if you look at it as just part of being angry or frustrated or happy or surprised, that is all normal. That's built into all of us."

He says it's each parent's job to teach children the nuances of language and when profanity is and isn't appropriate. If a child is swearing, punishment won't necessarily dissuade it.

"Try to figure out first why the kids are using this kind of language," he says. "Expect it to be there. Expect your kids to be angry and frustrated at times and sometimes this language seems kind of natural to them."

Jays says there are positive consequences of swearing that are largely disregarded. He is working to develop the social, cognitive science of swearing, which affronts the major perception of cursing as an immoral use of language.

"A lot of times you don't get to the argument about the positive uses of these [words]," Jay says. "Their use in humor, their use in bonding, their use as a relief from pain or venting or frustration — I look at this as an evolutionary advantage. Why would we have this language? It must do something for us."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

 

NPR

How'd A Cartoonist Sell His First Drawing? It Only Took 610 Tries

Tom Toro was a directionless 20-something film school dropout. Then, after an inspired moment at a used book sale, he started submitting drawings to The New Yorker ... and collecting rejection slips.
NPR

Will Environmentalists Fall For Faux Fish Made From Plants?

A handful of chefs and food companies are experimenting with fish-like alternatives to seafood. But the market is still a few steps behind plant-based products for meat and dairy.
NPR

Will We See Veto Battles On Capitol Hill?

With President Obama promising to vetoes, what are the possibilities of a few veto overrides during the next two years? NPR's Arun Rath puts that questions to the National Journal's Fawn Johnson.
NPR

3 Voices, 1 Threat: Personal Stories Of Cyberhacking

In President Obama's State of the Union address, he gave fresh emphasis to a problem that has been in the headlines: cybersecurity. Here are three people who have experienced security breaches.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.