From placenta to play centre

From placenta to play centre

Swearing at kids in supermarkets

Over the past couple of years I’ve developed quite a crush on the English language.

Sure, it may not have rhythm and melody of the Latin-based romance languages. Nor, does it have the elegant preciseness of German. (What’s not to like about a language that has a word such as backpfeifengesicht to describe a face that invites you to slap it?).

But English has an elasticity that few other languages possess. Not only are we able to nab words from other tongues and seamlessly incorporate them into our own, but we can also create new meanings by simply turning a noun into a verb (we all now ‘Google’ information), a verb into a noun (alas, we’ve also all probably had ‘the runs’), and adjectives into either (‘blue’ can be a colour, a fight or a feeling).

Like any new relationship, I’ve sought to test the boundaries of my newfound fondness for the English language, never so more than when I give presentations.

While prattling on about the topic of the day, I occasionally drop in the odd swear word. (Odd meaning infrequent that is, as my swearing certainly lacks the inventiveness required to be deemed in any way peculiar). Now, I’m not speaking of the ‘f’ and ‘c’ variety here – some boundaries just shouldn’t be crossed. Rather, my mouth occasionally sees fit to wrap itself around the lower-end, is-it-a-swear-word-or-isn’t-it kind of word; the kind that can be used to emphasise a point when less scandalous expressions just won’t cut the mustard.

I’ve been encouraged on more than one occasion by people who really do know better than me to perhaps dial down the potty mouth to the more sedate pleasantries of conventional English. But for reasons beyond my conscious brain, I have not yet managed to accept this entirely reasonable invitation.

Which brings me to the point of this jibber-jabber.

I find shopping a particularly distasteful task even if it is for the food necessary to sustain my existence. This particular sortie to the shops was made even more odious after passing a colourful exchange between father and child. (I’ve substituted the chiefly chromatic words with the very beige ‘flip’).

“Get your flipping flip back here, right now’, the father snapped at the youngster, who I’m sure was no older than 5-years old. ‘Don’t touch another flipping thing’. With my eyes firmly on my own trolley, I scuttled by the quarrelling pair in faux pursuit of half-price eggs.

If the child flinched at these linguistic acrobatics, I must have missed it, because she seemed to carry on as if the flipping flips were nothing more than a bird chirping a tune in the background. That the utterance lacked any shock value to the child appeared to undermine the very purpose of using the bad language, but this point seemed to elude the father as he carried on his merry way.

I again reinforce my own guilt in using the occasional flip in public, and even more so in private. I’m a fair way from the category of salty sea-dog, but I’m sure that on occasions I could hold down one-end of the conversation with a junior deckhand.

The real point, however, is that I wouldn’t dream of using this language in front of children, and I am always shocked when I hear other’s crossing this line.

Maybe I’m being too precious. Words are just words, after all.

No doubt, it is the aggression behind the words that jolts my sensitivities. Research is conclusive when it comes to the detrimental effects of parental verbal aggression on children. Children who experienced frequent verbal aggression from their parents are more prone to physical aggression and delinquency themselves.

That’s not to say that parents are committing their children to a life of misery by dropping the occasional ‘f’-bomb in their presence. Far from it. And, I’m sure that we can all empathise with the parent of a child splattering tins of tuna across the supermarket floor.

However, there can be no doubt that children who grow up not knowing the difference between swearing and conventional language will have a tough time of it with social relationships and employment - both of which play an overwhelming role in life contentment and happiness.

The importance of parents/caregivers as role models can never be over-estimated. They are the child’s everything. And the older you get, the more you realise that it’s not just your nose or eyebrows that mimic your parents, but also your behaviours.

I love the variety of the English language, and am rather partial to the spice that the occasional blue word can throw into the linguistic mix.

However, I question the wisdom of normalising children to swearing at an age when they are coming to grips with the blissful expanse of the ordinary words of our language, and the infinite ways these can be deployed.

Change starts with recognition, and that means all of us. This is not about telling people how to parent, but rather about asking parents to think – not just about the unsuspecting shoppers around them, but about how they would like their children to grow up.

Click here if you would like to be on the mailing list for this column.

The Conversation is a non-profit + your donation is tax deductible. Help knowledge-based, ethical journalism today.