Profanity is a distressing part of child's language development

June 17, 1993|By New York Times News Service

A few years ago, Dr. Naomi Baron discovered that her son' kindergarten class had been stricken by an epidemic. The problem was not medical, but verbal.

One child had heard an obscene phrase and freely shared it with his classmates. They, in turn, took great joy in repeating the words to one another and to their teachers and parents, measuring the reactions and testing new limits to their behavior.

The phrase was not one that would make a sailor blush. In fact, it can be heard regularly from the mouths of educated, sophisticated adults -- which is undoubtedly how the first child heard it -- who are expressing frustration or emphasizing a point. Still, it seemed particularly inappropriate coming from the mouths of children that young.

"When I asked my 4 1/2 -year-old son what the words meant, he said, 'That's what you say when you want to get someone's attention,'" recalled Dr. Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University.

Such an answer from a preschooler was predictable, as was the children's sudden and intense experimentation with profanity.

"Children this age are just figuring out the effects of words on people," said Dr. Jean Berko Gleason, a professor of psychology Boston University who specializes in children's use of language. "It's a new sense of power. They no longer have to do something bad to get a reaction from an adult; they can just say something bad."

Preschoolers' vocabularies are peppered with derogatory and aggressive phrases. Some of these are the same as adult curses. Others are peculiar to childhood, and reflect the issues that children this age are trying to master, like toilet training ("poo-poo head") and aggression ("fraidy-cat").

"We've found that girls 3 to 4 use in public an average of 23 of these words or phrases, and boys use an average of 17," said Timothy B. Jay, a professor of psychology at North Adams State College in North Adams, Mass., and the author of "Cursing in America" (John Benjamins Publishing Co., $14.95).

Although girls have a larger vocabulary, boys appear more intent on using the colorful words and phrases they know. "In public, boys out-swear girls 2 to 1," Mr. Jay said.

While the foul language coming from such small mouths may take parents aback, researchers say it's often a positive sign of children's intellectual and social development.

"If we have a child who's physically aggressive and is beginning to express himself verbally, then we consider that a step in the right direction," said Lynn Galle, the director of the laboratory nursery school at the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development in Minneapolis.

Although young children quickly catch on to the emotional intensity of adult curses, they often have no idea what the words mean. This situation isn't surprising when you consider how children use other powerful phrases differently than adults do.

While a 5-year-old may say "pretty please with a cherry on top" as a way of getting someone to do something she wants, an older child is too sophisticated about the subtleties of politeness to believe that simply embellishing the word "please" will make it more powerful. But even older children in elementary school will use a phrase like "trick or treat" without understanding that they're actually giving their neighbors a choice about handing over some candy.

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