As It Happens

Could allowing kids to swear actually be a good thing?

The author of Swearing Is Good For You argues that our attempts to shield children from foul language are often more about protecting ourselves.

'We do kids a massive disservice ... by banning swearing,' says author and researcher Emma Byrne

The author of Swearing Is Good For You argues that our attempts to shield children from foul language are often more about protecting ourselves. (Atomazul/Shutterstock)

Read Story Transcript

There's a lot to be said for swearing, says artificial intelligence researcher Emma Byrne.

The author of Swearing is Good For You watches her own words, but says we could afford to be a lot less persnickety about the words kids use.

Next week, Byrne will present her research on swearing at the Cheltenham Science Festival in England, where she'll argue that parents should be more permissive when it comes to their children's verbal hygiene. 

Byrne spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off about her controversial stance. Here is some of their conversation.

Why do think that kids should be allowed — even encouraged — to swear?

Swearing, we know, has loads of benefits. It's excellent for us as adults to kill pain. It's really good as a social bonder. It's a great way of demonstrating sympathy between people who otherwise find it really hard to express their emotions.

Some of our own research looks at football fans on Twitter. And they don't swear at each other's teams. They don't abuse each other.

What they do is they either celebrate by saying, "F--k, yeah! This is an amazing game!" Or they're talking about what an 'excrementally' bad game it is.

 If we want to instill our values in our kids, then [we] need to be able to name and talk about those words, before they come across them in context out in the world.-Emma Byrne, author and artificial intelligence researcher 

But the problem is that we have to learn how to do that effectively somewhere.

We do kids a massive disservice when we try to preserve their innocence in some way by banning swearing.

So it's not that I'm suggesting that parents encourage their kids to swear, but rather that they look at what their motivations are when they're asking their kids not to swear.

Because I think quite often we're doing that as parents for our own protection, rather than with the best interests of our kids at heart.

Profanities are so often designed to shock. They're cultural taboos — but they're also often misogynist, racist, sexist. These are words we use quite often to hurt. So why would that be valuable to children to have these words in their vocabularies?

It's very valuable to have the conversation about these words in their vocabulary. Trying to pretend they don't exist does a massive disservice.

As parents, if we want to instill our values in our kids, then you need to be able to name those words, and talk about those words, before they come across them in context out in the world.

There is a huge difference between the kind of swearing that's done either spontaneously to kill pain, or deliberately in a way that is jokey and bonding, versus the stuff that is aggressive and very much based on slurs.

And anything that is slur-based — you're quite right — is designed to be hurtful.

It's far better talking about why there are some words that they just don't use, and what the physiological effects are of those slurs on people who belong to those groups that have suffered from oppression. 

Emma Byrne says it's better to teach kids about swearing rather than forbid them from doing it. (Submitted by Emma Byrne)

When your book Swearing is Good For You first came out, you were on CBC, on Day 6, and you were at that time grappling with whether you would be comfortable swearing in front of your own kids. What decisions have you made since then?

I think six months or so of raising a toddler has really made me realize the value of being able to express your emotions with language. 

I try to be much more mindful — so not completely erase all swearing from my life, but being much more mindful of how or where I use it.

So my daughter is just getting through the stage of hitting, yelling, screaming, flailing, lying on the supermarket floor when things aren't going well ... and it's getting to the point where she can actually start to name some of her feelings.

But one of the things I'm kind of looking forward to is when she first uses those swear words — at me, with me, in front of me — to be able to sit down and discuss them, rather than just instantly closing down and saying, "Never use that word in school! You will embarrass me!"

Because I think quite often as parents there is this tendency to not want our kids to be looked down upon, because it reflects poorly on us.

Written by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes and Kevin Ball. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A edited for length and clarity.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.