This child speaks fluent Insert → Symbol.
It’s a milestone every bit as memorable for parents as baby’s first tooth, or first step: that adorable moment when Junior gleefully lets fly with a swear word.
According an “exclusive News Ltd online survey” in today’s press, 42% of kids have uttered their first swear word by the age of three.
(It’s not covered in the survey, but I’m sure the statistics will also show that the more taboo the word, the greater the chance that it will first appear when Junior is being complimented by an elderly nun.)
Parents frown, raise their voices and tut-tut about where on earth their innocent child could have picked up such filthy language. They then make a mental note to keep Junior well clear the next time Dad’s doing a spot of reno and hits his thumb with a hammer.
If it’s not around the house, it’s in the car, where Mum or Dad can let fly at a fellow motorist, forgetting the human Dictaphone sitting in the back seat, excited at learning a new word, and now alert for an opportunity to try it out.
And even households with strict codes of silence cannot avoid the lessons learned in that great school of life we call ‘school’.
Predictably, the News article includes etiquette expert June Dally-Watkins huffing and puffing about swearing being disgusting.
But I’m inclined to see things differently. Let’s think about this for a second.
Kids - and everyone else - swear because it’s taboo. Swear words earn children attention; in more adult usage, depending on the context, they are powerful intensifiers, expressions of heartfelt emotion, or just really funny.
Every schoolkid knows there’s only one thing more fun than learning a new swear word, and that’s being in the powerful position of being the one to teach it.
Gather round, says the older child; I learned a new one today. The group falls silent as the guru lets the new naughty word drop from its lips like an incantation.
As the other children repeat it, the guru follows up with a definition. It’s highly likely to be factually incomplete, but no grown-up is going to correct them, because grown-ups are not allowed behind the bike shed.
Why does swearing hold such power? Because the kids know this is taboo. They shouldn’t be holding this lesson. Parents and teachers would be outraged. This is rebellion. This is power.
Now then. Let’s imagine that kids were taught swearing in class. Taught, tested, and given readers written by Kevin “Bloody” Wilson to take home to practice with Mum and Dad.
Now let’s imagine that maths, grammar and science were banned from that classroom. And the home. And kids’ TV. No child is to learn anything remotely useful to society.
What, then, would happen behind the bike shed?
I’ll tell you what would happen. Children would gather around an older sibling who is eager to reveal new discoveries in taboo areas like maths, grammar and science.
Let me tell you about the semi-colon, says the guru, while the children ooh and aah and take a seat on the grass. They know the grass is green because of chlorophyll, because that’s what they learned here last week from one of the Grade 5s.
Teach the bad language in class, and harnessing the power of their own rebellion, we shall trick the children into the REAL learning.
And unlike what they’re taught in class, these lessons will stay with them forever.
How do I know this? Because when I was in Grade 4, I learned long division, and also one of the 4-letter classics.
And to this day, if I hit my thumb with a hammer, I don’t do long division.
Gerard McCulloch is a staff writer with an honours degree in Applied Linguistics, so you have to take this seriously now. He's @drjavabeans on Twitter.
The opinions expressed in The Side Project blog do not necessarily reflect those of The Project or the Ten Network.