I notice children swear a lot in TV shows, e.g. on Stranger Things. (Examples for swears: SOB, screw you, showing the middle finger, etc.), I can't remember if they've said f**k yet. In a culture where kids their age are not allowed to say these things and are constantly reprimanded to "mind their language", how is it ethical for a TV show to have them say these things? It makes me cringe at least. I know kids that age probably know these words, but is it alright to make them say it?

Do parents or some sort of children's welfare organisation not object to this? Is there an age beyond which its OK to have kids swear for acting? Because I clearly remember an episode on Modern Family where Lilly (the actor was not more than 4 years old at the time) had to say f**k a few times. It was beeped, and the producers later clarified that they had her say "fudge" while shooting the scenes. So apparently 4 is too young. How high does that bar go? What factors decide it?


2 Answers 2


LA Weekly points out that kids cursing on screen was a 1980s development:

Still, the baby boomers directing and penning the coming-of-age films of the '80s had a tendency to subvert the wholesome representations of a suburban upbringing that were prevalent throughout their own youths. Rather than Beaver Cleaver and Opie Taylor uttering "Gee, golly" and "Aw, shucks," kids spoke the way kids actually spoke. They were the audience, after all — what would be the point in shielding them from the language they actually used?


“Somewhere along the line, executives, moviemakers, storytellers, realized that there was this audience there of kids who were not being spoken to, who were not being presented with the things that entertained them,” adds Adventures in Babysitting screenwriter David Simkins. “If you’re going to write for kids, to kids, about kids, I think you have to, obviously, write the way they speak or risk not being truthful.”

This coincided with a change in how movies were rated:

“Ever since the MPAA [Motion Picture Association of America] rating system kicked in, the barriers to language and violence had been weakening,” Dante says. “The novelty of children swearing onscreen was quickly wearing off, so it became commonplace to write kids’ dialogue the way it occurred in real life."

In the ‘80s, every variation of “shit” became customary for movie kids to say, whether it was “oh shit,” “holy shit,” “no shit,” “shithead,” “chicken-shit,” “shit-heap,” “piece of shit,” “dog shit,” “eat shit” or “you gotta be shittin’ me.”

A child actor of that era points out that cursing is part of how kids behave:

Jeff Cohen, who played The Goonies’ lovable loudmouth Chunk, says most of the cursing in the beloved 1985 film was the result of improvisation at the behest of director Richard Donner. “He really wanted us to just kind of behave like kids,” says Cohen, who's now an entertainment lawyer with his own Beverly Hills firm, Cohen Gardner LLP. “I hate to be the old man saying, ‘Back in the day ...,’ but I think kids were less supervised in the ‘80s versus 2016. If there’s a question of ‘if kids are unsupervised how are they going to behave?’ the answer to that [is],” Cohen says, breaking into laughter, “they’re going to fight, they’re going to curse and they’re going to be kids.

This even extended to the sweariest word of them all:

“We thought it was incredibly important to keep Stephen King’s original dialogue intact,” says Stand by Me co-screenwriter and co-producer Bruce Evans. With Reiner shooting The Princess Bride in England, Evans says it fell to him and his writing partner/co-producer Raynold Gideon to fight the fight with Columbia over keeping the “fucks” in the film.

“There were seven of them in the movie,” Gideon adds. “Columbia wanted a PG-13 film.”

With the exception of Stand by Me, “fuck” was generally reserved for ‘80s teen fodder, films like The Breakfast Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Heathers, all of which were rated R. That being said, 13-year-old Billy Kopeke (Jared Rushton) delivered one of the all-time great F-bombs when he demanded to know from Tom Hanks’ Josh Baskin, “Who the fuck do you think you are?” in PG-rated Big. In Lucas, Corey Haim, who played the film’s scrawny but highly intelligent 14-year-old title character, brazenly stood up to the high school football coach, calling him a “dumb fucking jock.”

These are just some excerpts from a very in-depth article on the topic; I recommend you go read the whole thing.


Welfare organization? I think, with actual problems of physical and sexual abuse, violence, crime, kids not getting enough food or clothing, there isn't a welfare organization anywhere that would consider using a swearword some kind of child neglect.

I'd further question if a child using swearwords (vs an adult in the same situation) actually breaks any laws, which would be a standard for some kind of formal intervention, I'd think.

I know of a number of parents, friends and family, who use swearwords around their kids and aren't necessarily put out by if their kids use them.

Back 40+ years ago, when I hit third grade, I learned what the swear words were from hearing older kids, and every recess was, essentially, a litany of curse words streaming from my mouth, in a manner that it was clear that I had no idea what the word actually meant. I eventually toned it down, mostly because I knew how stupid I sounded. Later, I didn't swear around my kids, at all, and they didn't swear around me, but I know for a fact that, well before high school, they'd talk like that with their friends and vice versa. Now that they are both adult age, no one censors themselves when we talk, but the swearing is only occasional, because we have other things to say when we talk.

There are parent organizations that do object to swearing, of any kind, but on the level of the individual child being asked to say the lines? If you think the acting part is what introduced those words to a child, or that they never used them, before or after, outside of that part, I'd have to say that you might be a bit naive about what kids know and when they know it.

As for whether it is "acceptable" or not for TV or movies, you won't find any G-rated movies with swearing, and a lot of swearing will get you up to PG-13 or R ratings, or bleeped from non-premium cable, usually.

  • Although, when clicking on some different actors on "Rotten Tomatoes," I did see where they incorrectly had the movie "Brown Bunny," with its actual, real, explicit sex scene listed as "G" rated instead of "NR." Really hope no one rents it for family movie night based on that. Nov 2, 2017 at 16:07

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