RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Also in Your Health today, kids and curse words. No one expects a 3-year-old who loves to dress like a princess to swear like a sailor. But experts say the use of edgy or foul words can start very early, and the way parents respond makes a difference.
NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.
ALLISON AUBREY: You know that expression that we've met the enemy and the enemy is us? Well, the quote helps explain kids and cursing. The collective us are parents. A few weeks ago I put a question out to hundreds on a list-serv called DC Urban Moms asking for stories about the first time parents heard their children use inappropriate words.
What I got back were lots of stories like Julia Gordon's. She was in her car, in a hurry, trying to park.
Ms. JULIA GORDON (Parent): The parking lot was crazy. My daughter was in the backseat.
AUBREY: When a guy in another car stole a spot right out from under her, Gordon called out...
Ms. GORDON: Oh, man. That guy just totally scrooged me - except that I didn't say scrooge.
AUBREY: It was a harsher version.
Ms. GORDON: I said the slightly harsher version.
AUBREY: And a few minutes later came the little voice from the back seat parroting the same phrase.
Ms. GORDON: I have to admit I did laugh at first, and then I immediately stopped and told her we don't say that word and that mommy was very, very sorry for saying that word.
AUBREY: Young children major in the study of their parents, so it's no surprise that they mimic words and phrases, including the curse or slang that slips out.
Mr. PAUL BLOOM (Yale University): That's just language learning. These words have no special status as taboo words. Learning they're taboo words is a later step.
AUBREY: Paul Bloom is a psychologist at Yale. He says even very young children pick up on emotion and emphasis in their parents' voices. So they may get it, that certain words are uttered in tense situations, but what's missing is judgment.
Mr. BLOOM: They're using words to communicate instinctively and automatically, and it takes a bit of know-how to step back and look at language not as something you automatically do but something you could kind of contemplate and appreciate.
AUBREY: Bloom says a few years ago his six-year-old son Max came home from school one afternoon and asked in a quiet little voice: Dad, do you know what the worst swear word of all is?
Mr. BLOOM: And I was a bit nervous. And I said, Um, what? And he said, Damn. And I was relieved. And I said, So why is damn the worst swear word of all? He said, Well, I listen to my babysitter talk on the phone, and she says the F word and the S word, she swears a lot, but she never says damn.
(Soundbite of laughter)
AUBREY: At that moment...
Mr. BLOOM: Yeah. And they pick it up from adults. They pick up from some extent from movies and TV programs.
AUBREY: The Parents Television Council estimates that about once an hour children watching Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and other networks will hear mild curse words such as stupid, loser and butt. The scope and frequency rise immeasurably with exposure to older programming.
Bloom says as an experiment with his children, he and his wife tried their hand at creating their own family curse words.
Mr. BLOOM: So one of them was we would bang our foot and say something like flep. And then whenever something bad happened we'd scream flep as if it were an obscenity. And it was a total failure. The children looked at us like we were crazy.
AUBREY: And completely ignored their parents. The story gives one of Bloom's mentors, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, a chuckle.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. STEVEN PINKER (Harvard University): Oh, dear. Yeah, because kids, first of all, their language is far more influenced by their peers than their parents anyway. That's why children of immigrants always end up with the accent of their peer group rather than their parents.
AUBREY: When it comes to choosing words, Pinker explains we're forever coming up with new ways to say that something's good or bad, and with each generation there's a little semantic inflation.
So say you hear a song you really like. Someone of the Gen X generation may say it's awesome. A twenty-something may say it's sweet. Whereas a teen or tween of today may say it's bitchin'. If the song's lousy, they may say it sucks.
Mr. PINKER: When I was a child, when you said something sucked, everyone knew exactly what sexual act that referred to. I'm pretty sure that most kids who use it now have no idea.
AUBREY: It's just part of their common language. And frequent use over time has stripped away the original connotation. Pinker says the evolution of sucks is similar to the evolution of jerk a generations before.
Mr. JESSE SHEIDLOWER (Oxford English Dictionary): It doesn't really matter where it actually comes from. What matters is what the perception is.
AUBREY: Jesse Sheidlower is editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary. He says evolving perceptions can create a disconnect between parents and kids. Suck may sound edgy and obnoxious to middle-aged ears, especially if we carry the baggage of its etymology.
Mr. SHEIDLOWER: It's kind of hard to explain why it should be bad, you know, why you shouldn't use this word, because that brings up a conversation you might not want to have right now.
AUBREY: Not everyone's on the same page about what constitutes offensive language. So parents are on their own to navigate the boundaries. Mom Sarah Pekkanen, who's got two boys aged six and eight, says for her a natural dividing line is attitude or intention.
Ms. SARAH PEKKANEN (Mother): I would be much quicker to jump on my kid for saying an unkind thing, you know, even if he used perfect language to do so, than I would be to jump on my kid for maybe using a borderline word like it sucks.
AUBREY: A clear message like this about respect and kindness may be more fruitful than trying to police every word. As pediatrician Monika Walters points out, by the time kids enter the teen world, cursing is almost a rite of passage.
Dr. MONIKA WALTERS (Pediatrician): It's hard sometimes, but I think as parents you worry that, oh my god, they're going to grow up to be adults that are like vagrants and a menace to society.
AUBREY: When parents like this come to see her or pull her aside after an office appointment, worried about vulgar words they spotted in their teen's text messages, she asks them to remember how they talked at 15.
Walters says if offensive language is part of a pattern of aggressive behavior, there's a problem. But in most cases it's just the way teens salt their language.
Mr. BLOOM: Obscenity is a sure ticket into adulthood.
AUBREY: Or at least perceiving that you sound older. Paul Bloom says there's also more emotional resonance. He says he knows he can't control the words his children use with their friends. And he says that's the way it should be. It's part of growing up.
Mr. BLOOM: Another part of growing up though is knowing how to talk to adults and knowing how to talk in formal situations. So what we'd like our children to end up knowing is what these words are but when it's appropriate to use them.
AUBREY: At the moment, Bloom says, his son has taken to the term crap damn. Appropriate for formal situations or with adults - not so much. It seems teaching good judgment is not a one-time event. It's a process.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And now something just for you parents out there: tips on how to get a good night's sleep at npr.org/yourhealth.