Your Child is Swearing? Why and When Swears are Okay!
Swearing Can Be a Sticky Issue
Are you horrified at the words you have heard your 5 year old use? Do you argue with your teen about using bad language? Swearing can be a sticky issue with your child, because, as I have been known to say to my clients, "You ultimately cannot control what goes into their mouths or what comes out". Meaning, you can't control what they eat (or don't eat) or what they say. That is not to say that there is nothing you can do about swearing, but it is important to understand that it is not something you should expect to control. Your job is to exercise your influence on them in strategic ways to encourage them to make word choices that are acceptable to you and to those they will come in contact with.
Monkey See, Monkey Do!
The first and most important influence that you have over your child with regard to swearing is what you model for them. As anyone with a toddler knows, children repeat what they hear, often in the most inconvenient of circumstances! So if you don't want to hear your pre-schooler yell "Oh sh*t!" at the top of his lungs in the grocery store, or to tell your mother-in-law to go to hell, then don't use those words yourself. I am constantly amazed, when working with parents and children, that so many parents don't seem to get this concept. You cannot expect your child to control his impulse to fling swear words about, if you cannot do it yourself!
Is it ever okay to swear?
That point aside, in my opinion as a therapist and a parent, swearing in general is not such a big deal. If you want to maintain a zero tolerance policy toward bad language, that is your right as a parent. Good luck with that. Let's face it, swear words are a part of our repertoire of expression, and there are few people indeed who absolutely never curse. Swear words have been around as long as language itself, and they exist in every language across the globe. They actually serve a useful purpose, when not over used! If I accidentally nail my thumb with a hammer, I'm likely to utter a few choice morsels. And why not? That is an extreme situation where I was suddenly a victim of excruciating pain. When I am angry, I might pepper a diatribe (about something, not at someone) with a few mild curses. Because I seldom use them. this insures that anyone within earshot knows how very angry I really am! After all, swear words are just that - words. There are much bigger problems that will face a parent raising a child than just words. I prefer to pick my battles, and the occasional swear word from my child is not one of them.
One caveat that I would add in here - calling your child, or anyone else, a swear word falls under the name-calling category, and that is never allowed. It is hurtful and cruel and you should never model that for your child. In addition, there are a few swears in the English language that are particularly offensive that I would stay away from totally. These are just too ugly and derogatory, and most people in decent society cringe at them. The "c" word is one, as well as p**ck. Just don't go there.
Why They Swear and What to Do
Please note, however, that I said "occasional swear word"! A child swearing frequently (assuming you are not modeling this for her) needs to be dealt with. Not only because you don't want to hear it, but it's important that your child learn what is and is not acceptable in her society. You certainly don't want her to go off on a teacher, or someday drop an f-bomb on her boss! So allowing it to become a habit would not be good parenting. How do you stop frequent swearing if you can't control what comes out of their mouths? Well, that depends in part on the age of the child and the reason they're doing it but, generally speaking, you do it by how you react to the swearing.
A very young child who gets a big reaction (Oh my God, where did you hear THAT?) is likely to repeat it. Hey, it's fun to see an adult so affected by something he says! A very young child who swears should be calmly told that the word isn't nice to say and you don't want to hear it. They will say it again, it's pretty much impossible to resist the urge to test those waters! Try ignoring it once or twice. If the child fails to get a rise out of you, he may just drop it (again, this is provided that the word is not regularly used in his presence!). If the swearing continues then you need to take action. Next time the child asks you to do something enjoyable, like read him a story or take him to the playground, you calmly say "You know, I don't think I feel like reading to you right now. I don't like the words you have been using, and that makes me not feel like reading to you." The child will likely try to apologize. Take the apology (Well, I'm glad that you're sorry) and don't read. Ignore begging and whining and go on about your business. Chances are, one or two of these interactions will convince the child that it's not worth it to swear.
As far as explaining what the word means, it is fine to do so in age-appropriate terms. The youngest children may be satisfied just to be told that it is a bad word, but if they ask what it means, have an answer ready that is true, but in terms that your child will be able to understand without being loaded down with gory details. This will require some finesse on your part, but not telling them what it means can lead to misunderstandings with sometimes embarrassing consequences when your child decides to use the word in public.
An older child usually swears for a slightly different reason. They know it's not allowed, and they are purposely breaking the rules to push your buttons. Don't give them the reaction that they want! Getting all upset and angry will only hand them a tactic to use against you. Again, calmly state that the word is not nice and you don't like hearing it. In this case too, ignore it the next few times that she says it, and see if your non-reaction will be enough to put a stop to it. If not, then use the same strategy as with the younger child, and whatever you do, do not give in! The emphasis should not be on punishment, and grounding or spanking (article) are not effective. You should make it clear that you are not going to take the child to the movies this weekend, for example, because the words she's been using have made you upset. You don't want to go to a movie with someone who talks like that. It's a subtle but important difference from "Okay, you say that one more time and I won't take you to the movies!" Once again, if the child tries to apologize, you accept the apology and still do not go.
Helpful Reading for Parents
By the same authors as above, focusing on how to manage teenagers.
Your Cursing Teenager - When it Goes Too Far
With teenagers, swearing can often represent a totally different dynamic. As I have said, your teen uttering the occasional curse word at an appropriate time is no big deal. In fact, if you're really hard line about swearing with a teen, you're likely to find that he is swearing a blue streak when he's with his friends. Anything that is absolutely forbidden is simply delicious to a teenager. If you allow it as a rare expression in extreme situations, then swearing won't have that "forbidden fruit" appeal to it. Assuming that you are not using swears on a frequent basis yourself, a teen who continues to use swear words a lot can signify trouble, especially if they are directed toward you. If your teen is calling you the "b" word, or telling you to "f" off, you may have a more serious problem on your hands. But even here, the issue is not the words themselves. If you focus on trying to stop the language, you're asking for a power struggle, and no one is ever the winner in power struggles. Aside from that, you'll be missing what is probably the real problem. A teenager swearing at a parent is showing an alarming degree of resentment and disrespect. Your issue more likely lies in the relationship between you and your teen, and you may need to seek some family therapy to address it.
Hearing your child swear can be upsetting, and if it is maliciously directed toward you or another person, it certainly cannot be tolerated. But the occasional use of a colorful word by your child should not be cause for alarm. Let it pass, and use the strategies outlined here if it becomes too frequent. For the most part, don't sweat the small stuff. There are other issues you will encounter as a parent that will be much more challenging than bad words.
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© Katharine L. Sparrow, MSW
*Katharine Sparrow has worked as a psychotherapist with children and families for many years, focusing on parenting issues and behavior problems.