Jonathan deBurca Butler
Children are like sponges. It’s a cliché, I know, but like the clichés that the Irish drink excessively, Italians are vain and Scots are tight it’s there for a reason – the element of truth is always worth bearing in mind.
Fionn, as regular readers will know, is almost three and he is going through an unprecedented phase of listening, mimicking and understanding that the rest of us in his immediate adult world would do well to remember. That was brought home to us the other day when Ciara dropped him off at his playschool.
According to the lovely lady who runs the place, Fionn expressed his displeasure at the behaviour of a fellow toddler with an expression that would have been more fitting in an episode of NYPD Blue or a Martin Scorsese movie.
The scene went something like this.
Lovely Lady: “Now Ruth I’ve asked you five times not to do that.”
Fionn: “She’s being a pain in the ass.”
Of course when Ciara texted me to tell me that this had happened and when we discussed it later that evening of dinner and a glass of red, we did have something of a chuckle imagining the scene. Knowing how he speaks, the way he stresses his accent in a unique sing-song manner and knowing that he said it, in all likelihood, with his wonderful dead-pan, serious face – well, we were in fits for a couple of minutes. But when we eventually wiped away the tears, we spoke seriously about watching our language.
I have to admit that in the car I’m a terror for cursing. Everyone is a clown or more often than not something worse and sometimes you just forget that you have a set of very impressionable ears listening to your every word in the back seat. That is until you hear it being repeated back to you and you are forced to take stock.
It is of course inevitable that children are going to pick up bad language at some point in their lives, particularly in this foul-mouthed country. The question is what should we do? When we hear a child using bad language or repeating bad language that a parent has just used do we ignore it, remind ourselves to use other words and hope that it will eventually go away or do we draw attention to it and explain that the child’s hero, in other words Mummy or Daddy, has made a mistake and shouldn’t use expressions like “use your goddamn indicator asshole” or “for the love of Jaysus, just drive will you”.
According to a recent study by Dr. Timothy Jay of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, boys between the ages of one and two know about six taboo words, girls know an average of eight. Dr. Jay, made the claims in his paper A Child’s Garden of Curses published last year in the American Journal of Psychology and if he’s right then actually myself and Ciara aren’t doing too badly.
Dr. Jay claims that even if we try our best to shield our children from what he calls “taboo words” it is unlikely to stop them from using them. That, he claims, is because they are more aware of the social implications of such words, and are thus more likely to remember them, even if they don’t say them all the time.
“I think it’s part of them learning about their emotions and emotional expression and how their parents handle emotion,” he said in a recent interview with NPR. “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.”
Dr. Jay goes on to suggest that parents need to teach children the nuances of language and when profanity is and isn’t appropriate but he concedes that punishment won’t necessarily dissuade a child from swearing.
He also says that there are positive consequences of swearing that are largely disregarded
“A lot of times you don’t get to the argument about the positive uses of these [words],” he says. “Their use in humour, 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.”
Perhaps he’s right. He might be even damn right.