Do Curse Words Damage Children's Ears?

Background: Curse Words and Children

For many years, people have believed that curse words would “damage” a child's hearing and therefore created laws restricting certain language on radio, television, and other media. However, such words cannot do cause harm to anyone. In fact, by putting so much emphasis on the “harm” that people believe that curse words can do, we actually “give specific words their power” (Bergen 49).

Our topic focuses on the long term effects of children who are and are not exposed to curse words.

Supporting Research

Find study(ies) that focus on the effects of:

  • How much children who were exposed to curse words use them as they grow older
  • How much children who were not exposed to curse words use them as they grow older
  • Do children who were either exposed/not exposed raise their children the same or opposite way regarding curse words?

What Causes Children to Curse?

Multiple factors affect how likely a child is to curse

Some variables that affect children's vocabulary:

  1. IQ
  2. Emotional state
  3. Parents
  • Obscurity spoken by parents in observed interactions w/ child
  • parents level of education
  • parents level of income

Are Curse Words Harmful

While most western court systems would presume harm from a mere act of speech in cases involving things like discrimination and sexual harassment, the original justification of laws that make these cases possible were founded on the assumption that speech can corrupt or mentally harm children. However, the fact is that there is little (if any) social-science data that backs up the thought that a simple word, like any other ordinary word aside from the meaning given to it by the speakers of the language within which it exists, can cause any sort of harm to anybody. The problem that drives these mechanisms in societies lies with the vague and undefined interpretation of “harm”. Harm is most commonly defined by standards and sensibilities such as those that exists within the more dominant religious values and moral systems. But the fact remains that in the majority of the countries where these laws against harmful speech exist, there also exists a national belief that church/moral and state should be separate. The social sciences can help with this dilemma by attempting to provide methods by which we can literally quantify harm by way of objectively measurable symptoms such as association of things like disorders, sleep and anxiety levels with exposure to what is thought to be “harmful” speech.

A study involving over 10,000 episodes of public swearing by children and adults shows that these episodes rarely yield negative consequences and there was not an episode in which public swearing lead to violence. The study found that the majority of public uses of taboo words are not in negative situation such as angry dispute but instead they were most commonly found in positive situations such as use for emphasis or to tell a joke. However, there is a hole in social science research where descriptive data on swearing in private settings should be. Therefore, this is a great area for future social scientists! A recent study (Stephens et al.) even demonstrates that swearing can be associated with an increase in pain tolerance. This means that swearing after doing something like slamming you finger in a door can in fact have a cathartic effect, temporarily easing pain or even emotional discomfort.

These studies give an alternative to thinking of swearing as harmful or morally wrong. More meaning can be derived by asking question about what communication goals can be achieved with swearing. Taboo words can achieve a number of goals from positive use. These situations include jokes, storytelling and stress management. Swearing can even positively befit mental stability in situations where one needs socialize by fitting in with a crowd or making friends.

How Do Children Acquire Curse Words?

Children acquire curse words the same way they acquire other words in a language. However, Bergen questions whether we are actually putting more emphasis on curse words than we mean to, therefor actually making them more usable by children. One idea suggested about using curse words in front of children is that by being very careful to not use certain words, and making a big deal about using them in front of children, it is making the child want to curse more and increasing the likelihood that he/she will. Research also shows that children acquire curse words from a variety of sources.


Strayhorn (1995) finds that there are several factors that influence how a child acquires curse words. One of the factors are parents. If parents curse around children, they learn the words much easier. However, children also acquire curse words from peers. Riggio (2012) found that children will learn about 30-40 fowl words by the time they begin school. However, Ambridge and Rowland (2013) found that repetition affects how likely a child is to use a word. So, if a parent repeats the same word many times in front of the child, the child will be very likely to pick up on the words, as well as the context, and will be likely to use the words in situations they find it appropriate. Children can also associate the type of situation and perceive the words used in the situation as good or and from people's reactions. For example, if an adult is using a hammer and accidentally hits their finger with the hammer, then curses, the child can see the adult upset and in pain, and will associate that specific words with a negative meaning. Riggio suggests that when a child sees an adult curse when they are angry, they might view it as a form of therapy, as they see the adult calm down after using the fowl language. This may make the child more inclined to use to curse words as they will therefore associate it with a therapy.


Strayhorn finds that the child's IQ is related to how much the child will curse. Children with lower IQs are much more likely to curse than children with higher IQs. Children with lower IQs sometimes lack the ability to express their feelings when they are upset, therefor express their feelings through cursing. Another internal factor that Strayhorn and Riggio both found is that the child's emotional state will affect if, when, and how much the child will curse. For example, if the child is feeling upset, they are more likely to curse than if they are in a happy mood.

Adults Using Curse Words

In his study, Strayhorn finds that the amount of curse words that parents will use around their children is directly related to their levels of education. This suggests that parents who were exposed to curse words as children don't use them because they were exposed to fowl words, but because of their level of education. IQ level of adults also affects how likely they are to curse. One major explanation of this is because people with lower IQs lack the ability to express their feelings in appropriate and calmer ways when they are upset. So, this is not directly related to how much they were exposed to the curse words as children. Strayhorn also found that parents who curse around children are often of lower-income households. Therefor, if children exposed to curse words and came from a low-income household, and grew older and still belonged to a low-income household, then they would be very likely to use curse words a lot as adults. However, this doesn't show a specific relationship between children being exposed to curse words more likely to use them as they grow older.


Overall, children will acquire curse words from a variety of sources. Parents and other adults who curse in front of children do contribute to the child acquiring them. Children will not only learn curse words from adults, though. They will learn them from their peers as well. However, other factors, such as the child's IQ and emotional state will affect how likely the child is to use curse words. These same factors affect how much the child will use them as adults as well. So, there is no sufficient evidence that suggests that children who were exposed to curse words will be more likely to use them adults. There are exceptions though. One exception has to do with income level. So, if a child is raised in a low-income household, and grows up to be in a low-income household, then he/she will have likely been exposed to curse words, and will be likely to use them as an adult.

Research (References)

1) Ambridge, B. and Rowland, C. (2013). Experimental methods in studying child language acquisition. John Wiley & Sons, 4, (149-168).

2) Strayhorn, J. (1995). The profanity prediction problem. Statistical Case Puzzle. (1112-1113).

3) (May 1993). If you use profanity, so will your children: the main lesson: words can hurt someone. The New York Times. pg C12.

4) Riggio R. (2012). Will swearing harm your child? Psychology Today. Retrieved from <>

5) Fernandez, E. & Smith Cairns, H. (2011). Fundamentals of Psycholinguistics. Malden, MA. Wiley-Blackwell. (pgs 97-130).