Parenting Solutions: Swearing (page 4)
Swears; curses; uses profanity, "potty talk," bathroom jokes, or other inappropriate words
The Change to Parent For
Your child learns to understand which words and gestures are "off-limits" in your home based on your family's values, adopts your views, and learns to express intense feelings in an appropriate way.
Question: "Our 'well-mannered' daughter blurted the 'F-word' at dinner last night and sounded like a shock jock. We're petrified she'll do this in public. Should we be worried?"
Answer: It's not time to lose a good night sleep just yet, but do keep a closer eye on things. First, let your child know that she is not to use any such language in or out of the house, and let her know why it's offensive. Second, once you decide to squelch any particular bad word, be consistent and don't back down. Also, you didn't mention how old your child was, but do keep in mind that some kids throw out a term to gauge our reaction. Words can have power. So keep a straight face. And if your preschooler is the offending party, don't laugh. Letting your preschooler think for even a second that his cursing or potty talk is "cute" may encourage him even more.
We generally equate childhood with innocence, so it can come as quite a shock when a foul word escapes from the mouth of our sweet little darling. Experimenting with profanity, "dirty words," or "potty talk" these days is considered "almost a developmentally normal behavior."29 After all, a big way our kids learn is by imitating others, and there's a lot of profanity for kids to hear these days, in music, movies, public places (60 percent of adults admit they swear in public30), and of course television. A Florida State University study found that profanity during prime-time hours has increased 58 percent in four years—nearly nine out of ten of those programs contained profane words.31 Educators are so exasperated that some high schools now fine students if they utter profanity on school premises.33 And over 80 percent of Americans feel that vulgarity is getting worse.34
Regardless of the prevalence, it certainly doesn't mean you should allow profanity to become part of your children's everyday vocabulary—and most especially if those words are aimed in anger at a particular person. Swearing can become a hard-to-break habit that taints children's reputations, breaks down their character, and ruins family harmony. The best way to stop swearing is to nip it in the bud and to teach your child healthier ways to vent his frustrations. This entry provides some ways to parent for change.
Swearing Is on the Rise Among Teens
Harvard University: Research shows that the use of swearing and obscene gestures is increasing dramatically on school campuses.32 Fifty-nine percent of teachers in urban schools and 40 percent in rural areas said they daily face swearing and obscene gestures from students. A USA Today poll of high school principals found that 89 percent regularly deal with profane language and provocative insults toward teachers or other students. Chances are that your child is hearing profanity from peers, so be vigilant and keep parenting for the change you want.
Pay Attention to This!
Could It Be Tourette?
Tourette Syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by involuntary tics, movements, or vocalizations, is often called "Swearing Disease" (though less than 30 percent of people with Tourette have the swearing tic). In children the tics usually start between three and ten years of age. For information, contact the Tourette Syndrome Association (http://www.tsa-usa. org); read Children with Tourette Syndrome: A Parent's Guide, edited by Tracy Haerle; or talk to your doctor.
Signs and Symptoms
There are five signs that swearing may be becoming a problem that does require swift change:
- It has become a habit; bad words slip out any time and any place.
- Your child's character or reputation is at stake because of his foul mouth.
- Family harmony and relationships are being torn; respect is unraveling.
- Your child is aiming those words at someone or some group in anger.
- The problem is combined with other difficulties.
The American Academy of Pediatrics explains that by itself, swearing is not a sign of an emotional disturbance, but when other chronic problems are present (such as lying, hostility, depression, stealing, or trouble with peers), then it may be a symptom of a psychological or social disturbance.35 Talk to a mental health professional.
There are three steps to curbing potty talk, bad words, and swearing. You usually won't have to get beyond the first step with younger children. But with tweens and sometimes with older school-age kids, you may have to work through all three steps to parent for the change you desire in your child:
Step 1. Early Intervention
- Identify the reason. The first step is to figure out the reason your child is swearing so that you can tailor the solutions to that reason. Here is a list of a few of the most common reasons kids swear, tell inappropriate "bathroom jokes," or curse. Check any issues that may apply to your child:
- Copying what is heard from kids, TV, movies, other adults, or you
- Seeking attention or trying for "shock" value
- Testing limits and boundaries
- Proving independence or trying to feel "grown up"
- Attempting to "be cool" and impress others
- Trying to gain peer acceptance or "fit in" with the other kids
- Venting or letting off steam
- Intentionally hurting a person
- Behaving like others in his social group; swearing is a part of the culture
- Using the term in ignorance; he doesn't know the term is inappropriate and has never been corrected for using it
- Curb your tongue. Be honest. Are you at all responsible for your child's new raunchy vocabulary? Could your child be replaying what he hears? Kids at all age are mimickers. So watch your mouth. And put a restraining order on any older sibling or adult in your home who is swearing. Those are not the first words you want younger kids to utter.
- Have value talks. Talk to your child about your family values and explain why you object to such language. "I know other people may use those words in their homes, but we don't in ours." "Those are words that can hurt people's feelings. I expect you always to want to say and do things that make people feel good." If these words are offensive to your cultural or religious beliefs, then say so: "We don't ever use God's name in vain."
- Find the source. If your child is saying more than an expletive or two, try to determine where the words are coming from. Is there anything you can to do to eliminate the source? For instance: curtail certain TV shows or CDs, tune in to the ratings on those movie rentals, watch your own cursing, curtail the playdate, talk to the older sibling.
- Establish your house as a "No Swear Zone." Set a rule that no swearing is allowed in your home. Just be clear with all family members about which words are considered off-limits and then follow through on your rule. (Mom and Dad—as well as their adult friends—must obey the home standards.)
What is your best guess as to why your child is swearing or using inappropriate words? What is the first thing you will do to change this problem and turn things around?
Step 2. Rapid Response
If your child does use one of those "intolerable" swear words, here are the best ways to respond:
- Stay neutral. Your best response is a neutral retort. In fact, "underreacting" is far better than overreacting, which can mean to some kids that the term must be worth repeating. So remain calm.
- Call out the unacceptable term or gesture. Name the inappropriate word and then tell your child why the word is unacceptable: "That word is impolite." "We don't say '#*!%' in our house." "That may be something your friends say, but you may not in this house." For older kids, make sure you state that the term also may not be gestured or written in a text or e-mail message. (See Cyberbullying, p. 602, and Internet Safety, p. 610.)
- Explain the inappropriate term if needed. Don't assume that your child understands the meaning of the four-letter word or other inappropriate term he's using. Just keep the explanation at your child's level of understanding. If he's using the "F word" or a sexual term, it's time for an age-appropriate "sex talk" with your child. If he has picked up this term from school, chances are that the other kids are talking about sex, and you need to be the one to make sure your child is getting the right message. (See Sex, p. 394.)
Step 3. Develop Habits for Change
- Teach younger kids the words for body parts. Potty talk such as "Poopy Head" "Pee-Pee Face" or "butt" is quite innocent and should be expected with preschoolers. You can suggest that your child use more appropriate and anatomically correct terms, such as "bottom" or "penis," and say them matter-of-factly. It will reduce the sensationalism and the potty talk. You don't want to discourage your child from talking about his body.
- Teach jokes to younger kids. If you see that your preschooler is using "potty talk" because it makes people laugh, then teach him a few simple knock-knock jokes or funny sayings. "Most jokes about going to the bathroom aren't funny; let's learn a joke that will make people laugh without being offensive."
- Offer appropriate word substitutes for older kids. The biggest reason older kids (and adults) swear is to let off steam. If your child doesn't know an appropriate way to vent, it may be time for a family brainstorm session to find swearword alternatives. Just identify the word your child may not say and then think of other word options, such as shoot, dagnabit, drat, or phooey. Then use it until it becomes a habit. Remember, there's nothing wrong with yelling out, "I'm so mad!"
- Reinforce "cuss-control" efforts. Do acknowledge any efforts your child is making to stop the swearing. "I know that you were frustrated, but you didn't swear that time. It's hard changing a bad habit, but you're really trying."
- Teach your child to track his behavior. If your child is blurting out more than a few cuss words each day, then encourage him to keep track of the frequency. When habits set in, kids sometimes don't recognize just how often they are using the behavior. One simple technique is to give him a few pennies to put in one pocket each morning. Each time he swears, he removes one coin and puts it in his other pocket. At bedtime he counts the coins he moved. The goal is for him to gradually decrease the number of transferred coins until he stops the behavior. You might also challenge your child (or family) to see how long he can go without swearing. Offer a reward if he can go a certain length of time.
- Have your child "rip up" the words. Every time your child uses a swear word, he should write it down on a piece of paper and perform a ritual in which he rips up the paper so that there's nothing left but scraps. Many a teacher has gone one step further with this task and has the offender "bury" the words under dirt somewhere outside to symbolically convey that the words are buried and "gone" for good.
- Set a consequence if the problem continues. If you've been clear with your expectations, yet the swearing still continues, then it's time to go up a level and set a consequence. Here are two things to do if you have a "repeat offender" on your hands:
- Create a swear jar. Set up a swear jar—any jar with a lid will do. Your child should know which words will be fined and what the fine will be. Each time the child (and any member of the family—Dad and Mom as well) swears, he is fined and must put the set amount of money in the jar. When the jar is filled, donate the money to a charity of your child's choice. For kids short on money, post a list of chores that can be done to work off the fine. Warning: do not loan your child money to pay off the fine. It will defeat the purpose.
- Lose a privilege. Profanity directed at another person should never be tolerated, and the offender should immediately be sent to time-out ("If you can't talk nicely in the family room, you will go to your room") or lose a privilege ("If you can't talk appropriately in this house, you will not be able to use your cell phone").
What To Expect By Stages And Ages
Preschooler Little experimenters will try out new words for attention, to gauge reactions, or to copy what they've heard from their peers or the TV. Preschoolers are starting to learn the vocabulary of bodily functions and parts, so potty talk such as "Pee-Pee Face" or "butt" is quite innocent and should be expected. They're beginning to understand humor, so creating words like "Poo-Poo Head" is just hysterical to them.
School Age Expect experimentation with milder curse words, but don't let your child think they will be permitted. This age group needs guidance as to which words are unacceptable in your family and also needs to learn appropriate substitutes to express their frustrations. Don't be timid about reprimanding a friend who swears in your home: "We don't talk like that in this house." To allow cursing or other disrespectful talk by a friend sends a message to your child: "He can do it. I can't."
Tween Appearing "cool" is huge for this age group, so expect experimenting with four-letter words to "fit in." Because image is a big concern, talk about how bad language affects others' impressions; most adults view cussing as uncultured, crude, uneducated, and plain "not nice." Set clear standards for media ratings and what is off-limits. (See One Simple Solution box.)
One Parent's Answer
A dad from Orange County writes:
My son accidentally left his CD in the car stereo that was loaded with the F word. That evening we went through his CD collection. If any CD had a Parental Advisory label, it was dumped, as well as inappropriate songs from his MP3 player. I told him to expect a random CD check every so often. He finally got the message that our family didn't approve of that kind of language.
One Simple Solution
Increasing Vocabulary While Decreasing Swearing
My favorite consequence for swearing is to make the offender use the dictionary to look up a new, more appropriate word to replace the offensive one. The child must then use the word at least ten times (or some set amount) during the day. He could also be required to write the word on an index card to teach to other family members. You're not only eliminating curse words but also increasing your child's vocabulary skills.
One Simple Solution
Stay on Top of the Ratings Game
Studies show that the media do affect our children's values, language, and behavior. So carefully check those advisory ratings listed on CDs, DVDs, television shows, video games, and movies, and then be clear to your child about which ratings are unacceptable to your family values.
Here is a quick review that Parents magazine created of the four ratings and how language is portrayed in each category:36
G No cursing, but some crude language is fine if it's considered to be an everyday expression.
PG Minimal profanity, but not the F-word or other harsh, sex-related words.
PG-13 The F-word can be used only once—but not at all if it's used in a sexual context— unless a two-thirds majority of the raters think it's okay because of how the word is used.
R Hard language. Should be off-limits if you're eliminating profanity.
More Helpful Advice
Cuss Control: The Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cursing, by James V. O'Connor
How Rude! The Teenagers' Guide to Good Manners, Proper Behavior, and Not Grossing People Out, by Alex J. Packer
No More Misbehavin': 38 Difficult Behaviors and How to Stop Them, by Michele Borba
The Berenstain Bears and the Big Blooper (First Time Books), by Stan and Jan Berenstain
The Baffled Parent's Guide to Stopping Bad Behavior, by Kate Kelly
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