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Why Kids Swear and What to Do About It


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One afternoon, my 6-year-old daughter came home from school with a question that surprised me. “Mom, me and Eva were in the bathroom today, and there was a word starting with ‘F’ on the bathroom stall,” Leah said. “Eva said it was bad. Do you know any bad words starting with ‘F’?”

“‘F’?” I repeated. Truth? Hedge? Lie? I wasn’t ready for Leah to know this word, to pass it on to her 3-year-old brother or to trot it out in public places where younger kids (and their mothers) would hear. I thought if I ignored the issue it would go away. Thus began a year of language acquisition, and I don’t mean learning how to say “Mama.”

Understand the inevitable

Turns out I was lucky we made it to age 6. Learning language is part of being human, and swearing is part of language, says Timothy Jay, Ph.D., psychology professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and author of Why We Curse. “Swearing is not like a spice added to food. It’s part of the food, the emotional food,” he says.

Infants come into this world wired for emotional communication. Additionally, kids are language “vacuum cleaners,” learning around 10 words a day to acquire some 40,000 words by adolescence. So even if you don’t swear at home, your kids will learn the words.

Elise Dunbar of Greeneville, S.C., recalls the day her preschool-aged daughter was hunting for a lost jacket with Dad. Having searched all over the house, tiny Megan marched into her mother’s closet, put her hands on her hips, and asked, “Where is that f****** thing?” No one knows where she heard it.

According to Jay, learning taboo words at a young age is normal. “Certainly they’ve got a sense of it by preschool, and by school age, elementary-schoolers know this stuff,” he says. Developmentally, part of every child’s job in every culture is to learn what the taboos are. “Everyone learns how to swear . Whether they do it or not, that’s another thing,” Jay says.

Recognize the source

Kids, especially boys, swear for all kinds of reasons, including to be funny, to get attention, to fit in and to prove independence, particularly at middle-school age. However, most people, kids included, swear out of anger or frustration. Two-thirds is anger, Jay says.

When kids are young, they are just repeating what they hear at home, and it’s not coming from the TV. Two-thirds of parents swear around their kids, Jay says, but have rules against kids swearing. “What exists in the media can reinforce what kids have heard, but it has to reverberate with what they already know,” he says.

It’s not just the words kids repeat. When parents curse, kids pick up on your tone, says James O’Connor, author of Cuss Control: The Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cursing. Parents are most often expressing a negative emotion with exuberance. Imitation is just a natural thing kids do.

Most kids won’t swear if you address swearing in a calm, open manner. But if the problem persists, try offering alternatives, such as saying the words in his room (my family’s solution), agreeing on acceptable expletives (fiddlesticks!), or creating a swearing jar that calls for a penny or nickel for each infraction — parents included.

Joanna Nesbit is a freelance writer and mother of two who lives in Bellingham, Wash.


HOW TO CURB CURSING

Authors James O’Connor and Timothy Jay agree that overreacting to kids’ swearing is counterproductive, giving offensive words more power. Use the following strategies to lay the groundwork for a cuss-free household:

Ignore it. When a young child curses, consider letting it slide. A huge reaction puts the word on the child’s radar when it could have been a one-time experiment. Don’t laugh, either. It’s a sure way to reinforce the words.

Skip the discipline. For young children, it’s more effective to talk about the words than to enforce a consequence. Disciplining your young child may prompt him to use the words again when he wants a reaction from you, O’Connor says.

Explain your family’s values. Every household is different. Explain that some words offend, while others are plain hurtful, including swear words and cruel slurs. Tell kids you expect them to respect others. And curb your own swearing.

Look for the source of anger. If your child swears out of anger, help your child cope with the crisis at hand. It’s more effective to teach anger management than to punish kids for swearing. Address your concerns about swearing after your child is calm.

Teach positive coping skills. Show kids how to cope without swearing, by teaching them the patience and tolerance to manage everyday problems in a positive way.

Pave the way to the future. Talk frankly about swearing and slang body terms to eliminate the mystique and pave the road for important discussions when children are older. “By the time your kids are adolescents, they’ll be doing things they don’t want to tell you about. If a kid can’t say a swear word to his parents, he’s certainly not going to talk about sex with his parents,” Jay says.

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