A couple of days ago, Nate Silver’s new Five Thirty Eight site posted a piece called Baby’s First Profanity, in reference to an academic study that looked at the first time parents remember their children using a word that parents shouldn’t use in front of children.
Here’s a chart that tracks swear words from ages 1-12:
According to the post:
A study published last year in the American Journal of Psychology collected “data about the emergence of adult like swearing in children.” The authors, Timothy Jay and Kristin Jay, recorded observations of children ages 1 through 12 and adults using taboo utterances, which “were described as offensive words and phrases (e.g. fuck), insults or name calling (e.g. douchebag), and clinical terms (e.g. penis), as well as abusive expressions (e.g. I hate you).”
The study found that, overall, boys had a slightly larger repertoire of bad words than girls (95 compared to 80). But that repertoire varied by age. By age 3 or 4, girls were using 40 taboo words while boys were using 34; but among 7- and 8-year-olds, boys were using 45, and the number of bad words girls were using slipped down to 25.
Naturally, it made me think back to when I heard my son use his first word that must be censored. He was so young, there’s no way he remembers this happened.
It happened in the car. He was tiny. Probably wasn’t yet even 2 years old, and didn’t have the most expansive vocabulary on the planet. But he always paid attention to what was going on around him. And one thing I didn’t realize was he was paying attention to me.
Let’s just say, I’m not the calmest driver in the world. I tend to be colorful about drivers who do stupid things, and though I’m considered an extremely low key person, I go into “HULK SMASH!” mode when I’m behind the wheel.
Now, I didn’t realize how bad I was at the time, until the boy made his profound remark.
I was on a road in New Jersey, not far from our home at the time. The kid was in the back seat, in his car seat. I’m driving along, and then all of a sudden, some clown speeds up from behind me, moves to pass and cuts in front of me with zero room to spare. I hit the brakes, no accident happens, but it’s an abrupt move.
I quickly look in the rear view mirror to make sure the kid is OK, and then from the back seat, a little voice yells, “FUCK!!!”
Now, here’s the thing. My first thought wasn’t, “where did he learn that?” The answer was obvious.
No, my first thought was, “Wow. That was exactly the right thing to say at exactly the right time.”
Then I knew I had to clean up my act when the kid was in the car.
And I did.
And I think the next time I heard him swear was when he was in high school, many years later.