I didn’t really think anything about about my frequent, enthusiastic swearing until I got pregnant. But then, something about seeing me unleash a rousing string of epithets from behind my huge belly started making my husband wince. Even my mother, who once laughed when she heard my wee self let slip a “shit,” was moved to comment after she heard me on a recent DoubleX Gabfest describe myself as “so fucking pregnant.” “You might want to tone it down,” she said, gently. I suppressed the urge to tell her to piss off.
But was my swearing affecting the baby? “Your curious baby is listening in to your conversations at 34 weeks,” one of my weekly pregnancy email newsletters informed me. “Some say that baby will recognize songs mom sings while he’s in the womb, and may even be more easily soothed by them if he’s used to them once he’s on the ‘outside.’ ”
Oh, man. What “song” is my baby hearing? Maybe my little girl will feel that first burst of antiseptic cold from the bright hospital room, open her eyes, and scream, “Fuuuuck!!!” Maybe she’ll start sassing the nurses cleaning her tiny bottom, like a two-bit movie gangster: “Goddammit, dames, could we move it along here?” All fantasies aside, learning that my baby was eavesdropping on me while still in utero also made me reflect on the influence I’m already having on my daughter, and whether my unfettered use of the F-word is something I want her to experience with her first consciousness.
Though cursing was not a big deal in my household growing up, my parents did not curse anywhere near as much as I do now. I wasn’t so F-word-friendly myself until college. Before that, I was always the straight-A captain of the field hockey team, innately understanding that a degree of wholesomeness was an important part of the package. Looking back, I wonder if I started cursing so heavily because I needed to move away from that earlier good-girl persona, which ultimately I found stifling. I hope my daughter doesn’t need something as superficial and potentially off-putting as cursing to develop her sense of self.
More immediately—and selfishly—I’m concerned about how my daughter’s potty mouth might reflect on my husband and me. I really don’t want to be called into daycare two years from now because my daughter has been teaching all the other toddlers to complain about their shitty diapers. And I don’t want to be shunned at the playground while trying to meet new mom friends because I can’t keep my language PG.
Research on the effects of cursing on fetuses is inconclusive. I asked Annie Murphy Paul, the author of Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives, about how much of an impact cursing has on babies in the womb. She backed up my pregnancy newsletter: Newborns can recognize their mother’s voices at birth, and they can even recognize stories and songs if they heard them repeatedly before they were born. But according to Paul, babies can’t “discriminate among curse words or other words.” What babies and fetuses do respond to, however, is extreme maternal stress. But we’re talking war-zone, Hurricane-Sandy-destroyed-my-house level stress, not my-boss-was-being-a-jerk-today stress. Cursing can certainly go along with intense personal upheaval, but it’s a symptom, not a cause.
As for older children, the research is similarly incomplete. One 2009 study published in the journal Psychology, Public Policy, and Law pointed out that some of the extant research is based on a family verbal abuse measurement scale called the Conflict Tactics Scale—which does not separate conversational swearing from insulting swearing. There’s a big difference between cursing around your kid and cursing at your kid. The latter is verbal abuse; it’s unclear whether the former has a negative impact. Another study, from a 2011 issue of Pediatrics, showed that adolescents who consumed more profanity-laden media were more likely to be aggressive, both physically and relationally. Still, that study does not explore the context of the profanity, and it doesn’t really talk about how profanity used at home affects children.
Child psychologist Alan Kazdin, director of Yale’s Parenting Center, says he isn’t aware of any studies that isolate swearing from other negative parental behaviors. If you’re an otherwise supportive and loving parent who happens to curse, it’s probably not that big a deal. However, he does say that if you curse around your kid, it’s likely they will model that behavior. And once they’re cursing, it’s quite difficult to get them to stop. Telling your child, “I can do this because I’m grown up and you aren’t,” says Kazdin, is woefully ineffective. “It’s like when your boss takes off early all the time and you aren’t allowed to”—it breeds resentment.