Growing up, I was what black folks of a certain age would refer to as a "problem child." Many of my afternoons in middle school and high school were spent in detention, mainly because I talked too much. I talked back to teachers, I cut class to talk in the hallways, and I snuck out of lunch to talk in the parking lot. I'd argue that none of these offenses were actually detention-worthy, but the assistant principals at Dawnwood Middle School and Centereach High School would argue that "talked too much" was a disingenuous way of saying I "cursed too much." I cursed in front of teachers. I cursed in the hallways. I cursed in the parking lot. I was a foul-mouthed little boy. But, ultimately, I turned out alright. Now, I'm a college graduate, I've never been arrested, and I'm not a terror to my neighborhood—for a black guy, I'm pretty much everything Red State America would tell you I'm not.
So, as I grow closer to a time when I'm more likely to have a kid of my own on purpose than by accident, I've come to realize that all the shit I got in school for cussing so much as a child was really fucking unnecessary. And as far as detention goes, I'm actually lucky it didn't worsen my behavior.
"Generally speaking… you want to think about a more positive approach in order to get [kids] to change their behavior, rather than a punitive one. You want to reinforce the behavior you want them to have," says Tia Dole, a New York-based behavioral psychologist.
Putting me in a room for an hour after school with 15 other kids with behavioral problems worse than mine probably wasn't the best way to get me to chill. A common misconception seems to be that negative reinforcement cures all negative behaviors. But not only is detention particularly ineffective, all other attempts at micro-managing a child's vocabulary are pretty pointless also.
In an article on "the science of swearing", psycholinguistics experts Timothy Jay and Kristin Janschewitz claim "swearing emerges by the age of two and becomes adult-like by ages 11 or 12. By the time children enter school, they have a working vocabulary of 30-40 offensive words."
Having studied taboo language for years, Jay and Janschewitz claim to have found that children, whether or not they swear, "do acquire a contextually-bound swearing etiquette—the appropriate 'who, what, where, and when' of swearing." Basically, most kids don't have to be taught what's offensive and what isn't. They'll figure it out on their own.
Once establishing the fact that by middle school, a child may already have the vocabulary of a pimp in a brothel, and is probably well on his or her own way to discovering what parts of that vocabulary are and are not okay, Jay and Janschewitz wonder, "is it important to censor children from language they already know?"
Jon Sigurjonsson, a learning and experiential psychologist, thinks not. "If you already know something, why be shielded from it?"
Sigurjonsson also refers to recent research by Jay and Janschewitz that correlates your curse word vocabulary to your verbal intelligence. Personally, I believe in this correlation, given my own relationship with swears.
I've always been an extremely expressive person—among other things. So, as a child, when older kids and rappers and comedians introduced me to a handful of new words, I learned them immediately. In being that expressive, limiting my speech to only the words the more lame adults in my life allowed me to use felt counterintuitive. I preferred to speak like the adults who sounded the most impassioned.
Now that I'm grown myself, getting shit out of my head and into the atmosphere seems to be what keeps me sane—sometimes that sanity is hinged upon a few of those "impassioned" phrases. I wouldn't say cursing is the sole reason why I'm great at dinner parties (please invite me), or why I receive modest yet fair sums of money to write pieces while lying next to a person I met last night (she says hi)—but more words are always helpful. So helpful, in fact, that I'd take the argument a step further than Jay and Janschewitz and Sigurjonsson, and suggest with a heightened verbal intelligence comes an improved emotional intelligence.
Through experimentation with foul language, I learned very early on which cuss words hurt people, which cuss words excite people, and most importantly, the power and weight of words in general.
I also learned a lot about myself. That is to say, I learned a lot about masculinity.
Dole and I agree that, depending on the context, growing up around swear words is as harmless for girls as it is for boys, but I can only speak to my experience. Coming of age as a boy with a fresh mouth led me to the line between boys behaving badly and toxic masculinity. Nothing about expressing myself through adult language felt unnatural as a child, and that's probably a male privilege.
The line between swears and slurs is as subtle but real as the one between being cursed at and being curse around. According to Dole, "cursing is very contextual. Cursing at your kids is very different than cursing around them." While the former can be detrimental for obvious reasons, I've found the latter, at least in my experience, to be rather beneficial.
If I wasn't a boy who—through trial, error, and exposure—learned the weight of curse words, I might not have grown to be a man who respects the devastating power of derogatory slurs.
With that being said, I can't tell you why I still use the N word.
I'm comfortable with everything about the N word. I'm comfortable saying it. I'm comfortable with the fact that white people can't say it. I'm even comfortable with the fact that I basically use it as a male pronoun. To be honest, I'd say I'm more comfortable around black people who use the N word than those who don't. It really is a complicated issue, but it's something I'm allowed to own, and that feels special. Dole agrees that, often times, our comfort with certain swears is "culturally dependent."
This past weekend, me and my friend, Christelle, took her younger brother, Chad—a 13-year-old black boy—to see Rogue One. I spent about three hours with this lil' dude (you know the word I really wanted to say). Two of those hours were spent in complete silence as we rooted for the black characters in the staple of whiteness that is the Star Wars franchise—and I still managed to say the N word in front of him maybe two dozen times, along with every other curse word I could think of.
Every time I said a dirty word, the same grin flashed across his face that would come across mine whenever an adult felt comfortable swearing around me when I was his age. After some maturing, I realized in hindsight that I was smiling back then because I felt like those adults trusted me. They trusted me to figure out for myself when and when not to curse, how and how not to curse, and the ways in which cursing can affect the people I care for. I think boys and girls are better off with that trust than without it, even if it lands them in detention.