Cincinnati Family Magazine

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July 15, 2024

Four-letter Foul Play: Kids and Cussing

There’s nothing like hearing a baby’s first word. It’s a moment of wonder and excitement, something to record on video and in the baby book to remember forever.

On the other hand, there’s nothing like hearing your precious progeny utter his first swear word. It’s a moment of horror and embarrassment that most parents prefer to forget.

Kids are natural mimics; it’s how they learn to speak in the first place, so all of them will eventually experiment with four-letter words and more. Foul language is a common problem which, while mortifying, is fairly simple to solve with the right response.

Young Children are Regular Comedians

From the moment they’re potty trained and learn all sorts of fascinating words to describe their bodily functions – especially the funny sounds our bodies can make – kids will begin experimenting with bathroom humor. Coincidentally, many parents find bathroom humor hilarious, too, and unintentionally encourage a “poopy” repetoire by cracking up the first time they hear it or repeating the funny story to friends and family.

“This fun usually ends abruptly when the child repeats the same performance at a later age or in public and is reprimanded because he isn’t so cute anymore,” cautions Karen Joslin, author of Positive Parenting from A to Z (Ballantine; $13.95). She advises parents to appear unimpressed and to remain poker-faced when children utter dirty words. Calmly sending them to time-out in the bathroom and saying, “Bathroom words belong in the bathroom – say them in there by yourself,” can work with some children. If you’re in a store or your children are playing with friends when the potty talk erupts, keep your cool and give them a one way ticket to Boringville. “Katie, we’re going to leave for a while and sit in the car. We’ll go back in when you stop the potty talk.”

A calm response is the key to taking the power out of bad words for little ones. If they discover that saying, “You’re a doo-doo head” makes mom go ballistic, it will only encourage them to drop a verbal bathroom bomb they next time they want attention. Pediatrician and parenting guru T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., agrees: “Overreactions just make the swearing and dirty words more intriguing to children and give them a power they will want to try out. When you damp down your response, the offensive words will begin to lose their interest and you will hear them less often.”

Big Kids: Showing Off and Acting Tough

Even if you keep your conversations G-rated at home, older kids are going to hear profanity on TV, at the mall or in school, so get ready for your child to try some of that salty language, too. Between the ages of 7 and 12, kids know that some words are considered “bad,” therefore they use them to show off to other kids in an attempt to get attention or gain social status. At this age, kids yearn for independence and control, so swearing among their peers is an easy way to break the rules without getting caught. When older children swear in front of their parents, it’s usually to shock and anger them, particularly during an argument.

As with little kids, remaining impassive is the best response. Instead of shouting, “How dare you use those words with me!” take time to cool off, and then calmly address the issue. Joslin recommends something like, “You use bad language more often after being with your friends. The next time you talk like that, you will lose the privilege of being with friends. You’ll come home from school and spend your time alone. I’m sure your language will improve.” Another option is too suspend phone use, iPods or video games and returning the goodies after a week of clean language.

Certified Family Therapist Randy Carlson says to have a one-on-one discussion with your ‘tween and explain in graphic detail exactly what these words mean. Lots of kids repeat vulgar words without really understanding their true definition. And once they do, they very well may have a harder time speaking the words so easily. “Let them know how inappropriate and gross they really are, and that’s why you’re so offended,” Carlson says.

Teens: When Cursing is Cool

Once kids enter high school, they reach their swearing zenith because it’s a time in their lives when their ears are practically bathed in profanity from dawn until dusk. They hear it in movies, in music, in the locker room or just in the hallways. By now they know exactly what the words mean, but since bad language is ubiquitous at this age, teens can become numb to its offensiveness. While teenagers, particularly boys, curse to look cool to their friends or shock their parents, they often do it unintentionally because it’s part of the lexicon of their lives. Timothy Jay, author of Why We Curse (John Benjamin Publishing Co.; $35) and Cursing in America (John Benjamin Publishing Co.; $74) found that the average adolescent uses 80 – 90 swear words in the course of a typical day.

Does that mean you have to listen to it? Of course not. Point out to your teen that high schoolers are the only people in society who think cursing is cool; the rest of the world sees swearing as low class and ignorant. Explain that when they curse in public, small children are usually nearby memorizing every word. Remind them that their attempts to sound hip make everyone else around them cringe and recoil with offense. Tell them that swear words are the verbal equivalent of spitting or burping (or worse) in public. Once they understand the impact of their behavior, they may be more likely to clean up their acts away from home.

That said, as a parent who was once a teenager trying to fit in, try to remember that any kid who mutters, “Oh fiddlesticks! I missed that goal!” is asking for a whopper of a wedgie after the game, so understand that some out-of-earshot cursing among peer groups is going to happen. However, if foul language has found its way into your home, parenting experts say to impose consequences, such as loss of driving privileges or grounding for each instance of profanity. You can also try role playing the use of appropriate language to express feelings of anger, surprise or happiness. It may sound like a silly exercise, but people swear out of habit, so you have to practice a new behavior to make it come naturally.

Set a Good Example

If your child uses bad language, the first place to look for solutions is in your own home. Parents are their children’s first teachers and most influential mentors, so if someone in your house is prone to making off-color remarks, it’s should come as no surprise when the kids do, too.

Many people curse without even realizing it. If you suspect you might be one of them, ask an honest friend to point out every time your language veers off course. A little self-awareness goes a long way. Think about what you’d normally say if someone cut you off in traffic or if you stub your toe. If you tend to pepper your conversation with a few choice words for effect … it’s time for a change.

The quickest way to clean up your act is by swapping one phrase for another. For example, substitute “Oh my goodness!” for “Oh my God!” and your child will be less likely to offend an entire congregation the next time he’s surprised. Admittedly, some common substitutions sound dorky. So if saying, “H-E Double Hockey Sticks!” seems too lame, try “Crud!” or “Doggone it!” You can even come up with something original and laughter-inducing like Hannah Montana’s “Oh sweet niblets!” It might just help diffuse the situation.

Besides, coming up with alternative ways to express yourself could be something entertaining, even hilarious, to do with your kids at any age.

Deborah Bohn is a local mom and frequent contributor to this publication.

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