(Caution: This article contains salty words)
The shock I feel when I hear my sweet little child swear never quite goes away.
Who said that? I think, still jolted off balance. Where did he learn that kind of language anyway?
In our case it was the tram: a treacherous place where my children are receiving their first exposure to the Real World.
In our urban Swiss life-style, our ride to school comes complete with teenagers making their way to the English language high school. It makes me cringe every time I hear a high schooler drop some “colorful metaphors” (as the late, great Leonard Nimoy called them in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home). I always look at my children to see if they are listening.
And, of course, they always are.
Swearing. Curses. Profanities. Obscenities. Vulgarities. Expletives. Everyone uses them at some point. Some people have perfected the art of speaking complete sentences made entirely out of expletives. Comedians thrive on the titillation they create with salty language. For example, George Carlin’s most popular routine was his Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV.
Our society is fascinated with swearing. From explicit lyric labels to FCC regulations, it seems we spend a great deal of energy thinking about colorful language.
Is swearing ever okay though?
Studies have shown that when you drop an F-bomb or two after smacking your shin against the coffee table you actually experience less pain. Swear words are also highly effective for expressing strong feelings. “Jerk!” doesn’t quite have the same punch of emotion as “Asshole!”
However in both examples above, the relief or release felt is lesser for someone who uses expletives all the time than for someone who hardly ever does. And company you’re in determines whether the repercussions of swearing are worth the temporary relief. So it does pay to be judicious with your swearing.
People also swear as part of mastering a language.
Think about all the babbling your child did as a baby. Amongst all the cute cooing and babbling they began making meaningful connections between those sounds and objects around them. Suddenly mamamama became Mama!
Once they mastered the vocabulary they began to understand nuances like irony and sarcasm. Then came experimentation with alternative meanings to words. And in the final phase of developing linguistic mastery we hear swearing.
Understanding the nuances of swearing, when and where it is acceptable, is a crucial part of becoming indoctrinated into a culture and developing maturity. Because it’s taboo, kids swear with peers whom with they feel safe. Swearing with friends is a sign of acceptance and equal standing within the group.
So ok, hard as it is for me to admit as a parent, there is a time and place were swearing might be okay.
But I definitely don’t want my kids swearing experiments to turn into a habit.
What can I do? Here’s what I’ve found helps –
Editor’s Note: Finding solutions that work instead of ordering kids to just “Stop doing that!” is one of the key principles of positive parenting. Click here for our FREE mini-course How to Be a Positive Parent.
#1 Plan Ahead
I have begun to believe that half of parenting is controlling my own knee-jerk reactions to the stuff my boys do and having a plan for what to do instead.
My oldest son said his first curse word at 1 year old. I was parking and I accidentally tapped my husband’s car. Before I knew it the word shit came flying out of my mouth.
And then from behind me, with perfect articulation, an angelic little voice says, “Shit!”
I had not planned for this, but one year of parenting had already taught me I shouldn’t react. There was no way he knew what he had said and if I reacted I knew I’d be teaching him that “that word” was worth repeating. Instead, I laid my head on the steering wheel and silently prayed to whatever deity was handy that he would never repeat that in public.
Children are in tune to your reactions. When I react, I teach my boys they have the power to influence the world around them. Therefore, it’s important I figure out how I want to react when they first start swearing.
I am constantly running different scripts through my head. What if he says X? Hmmm… Maybe I should say Y. That way I don’t have to think on my feet and hope I magically come up with an ideal response. (Side Note: You know the “2-Minute action plans” that Sumitha has us writers put at the end of each article? This is what they’re meant for! So if you really want to get the most out of your time here, never skip them action plans!)
Also, work towards recognizing your own “reaction gap”. Victor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor, advises we find the space between the action, in this case swearing, and the response, in this case our reaction to the swearing, and use that time shape the actual response. The faster you are at recognizing this “gap”, the more space you can create to shape your reaction.
In my case, I feel a tightening in my chest or some tension across my shoulders when I am starting to react. In someone else it may be a feeling or emotion that clues them in. Either way, learning your own signals will help you recognize when you need to fall back on your prepared plan instead of running with a spur-of-the moment response. This takes practice in being self-aware and interpreting the signals sent to your brain, but the effort pays off (not just as a parent, but in all aspects of life).
#3 Give Reasons Why We Don’t Swear
Words have power. Words can lift you up and words can tear you down. Tony Robbins, a life coach and motivational speaker, says that the words you consistently use in your every day life can even shape how we think and feel.
Calling an experience “miserable” makes that experience miserable. Calling it “an adventure” transforms the experience in your mind and re-colors it. Firing out bitch as an insult to someone ripples through and colors their entire day’s experience in a damaging way.
Evan and I also had a conversation about flip side of this: that the words he chooses to use also colors how other people see him.
People judge you. It’s a fact of life. Evolution has hard-wired us to make judgments and assumptions about others. Our brain processes cues such as what others wear, how they behave, and what they say to categorize people as threats or non-threats. We aren’t even conscious about it!
Share with your children how you judge others who swear regularly. I explained to Evan, “When I hear other people swear it makes me believe that they might be violent or angry, or they might be insecure within and trying too hard to seem cool, or they don’t have a very big vocabulary.”
I selected these reasons because I knew that they would resonate with Evan. He is very proud of and likes to show off his large vocabulary and always wants to be seen as friendly. Saying what I think of those who use those kinds of words gives him an internal incentive not to swear.
#5 Creative Choice Awards
As I noted above, words shape our experiences. We can still express our thoughts and emotions without resorting to swearing.
My mother, for example, was fond of shouting “Apple!” or “Kumquat!” when she was frustrated. Just thinking about the word “kumquat” makes me giggle. The absurdity of shouting “KUMQUAT!” after dropping an egg on the floor still gives that explosive release of tension and exchanges the shock for humor.
We’ve all heard about the Swear Jar, where each family member has to drop in a quarter when they use a swear word. Penalizing methods can work, but as with any punishment there are loads of bad feelings around them and resentments can build up. All that resentment can result in rebellion and more swearing!
Instead, try a Creative Word Jar. We put in a quarter every time we hear the boys resist the urge to utter a curse word and use creative words instead. The more creative and funnier the better! I got the idea from listening to all the words Shakespeare has masterfully twisted together to form some of the best non-swearing insults of all time.
For example, we have Shakespeare to thank for the wonderful adjective “lily-livered.” Think of all the wonderful metaphors your brilliant child can create!
This also calls attention to and praises the efforts they are making not to swear. It tells them that you notice and shows it matters to you. Take the money at the end of the year, month, or even week, and spend it on a family outing or special reward that the whole family can agree on.
In the end, our kids have to decide what words they will use to color their experiences. The color of their world will depend on the language habits they have formed as children. The choices, therefore, when to use swear words should be conscious ones and not one simply determined by the force of habit.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Take a quick couple of minutes to think through the following questions.
- Is swearing a problem in your household?
- How often do you swear?
- How often do you hear your kids and their friends swear?
- How do you react when you hear your kids (or their friends) swearing?
- How do you want to react? What do you want to teach them?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
In the long-run, think about the kind of language choices you want your child to make and what kind of speech patterns you want them to have as adults.
- Think through and then have a conversation with your child about their language and the language that they probably hear used around them. What do they notice? How do they feel about it?
- What can you do to change your own language so that you are the one teaching them positive and creative self-expression? Have them think through their own alternative words.
- Consider if a reward system is right for you. A Creative Word Jar can be a fun and positive activity for modifying our not-so-positive language.
How to Stop Swearing?
I reflected back on when I tend to swear:
- When I’m backing out of our curved driveway, and the car falls off the edge.
- When I’m filling up my water bottle from the fridge water dispenser with Bailey on one hip, and she hooks her finger into the maple syrup bottle and dumps it all over the floor.
- When I’m pacing the house with Bailey in the Baby K’tan trying to get her to sleep, and I notice one of the cats has left a puddle of pee on the expensive leather chair in the living room.
So we tried the swear jar.
It turns out there’s something motivating about your kindergartner calling you out for your potty mouth and demanding that you pay up. Plus, I don’t keep much cash on hand and whatever I do have goes toward my afternoon vending machine habit.
My swearing meant no more Reese’s peanut butter cups. Which was a damn shame.
The swear jar was actually starting to work on me.
And Then Something Changed
Every time I cursed, Abby got this manic gleam in her eye.
“You said a bad word,” she’d say, a huge grin spreading across her face.
I guess she’s highly motivated by money.
Because now, she wanted me to swear.
When I cut back on the actual swear words, she started trying to catch me with just plain negative words.
In the grocery store parking lot: “I hate when people try to sneak behind you while you’re backing out!”
“Hate’s a bad word,” she said. With that grin again.
“Hate’s not a bad word,” I said. “It’s just not a nice word.”
“You need to give me a quarter,” she insisted.
“No, I don’t. Hate isn’t a bad word. I can say hate.”
She didn’t trust me. When we got home, she repeated the story to Ty.
I gave him the eyes. The back-me-up eyes.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to pay up that day.
But that was the beginning of the end for the swear jar.
Something a Little Different Than the Swear Jar
The next time I slipped up in front of Abby, I was cutting a cucumber for her lunch and I sliced into my thumb.
I said something a little stronger than “ouch.”
“You owe me money!” she said.
“I don’t think we’re going to do that anymore,” I said, running my thumb under the kitchen faucet.
Her face fell. “Why not?”
“Well, I don’t think it’s working. The point is not for you to get excited every time I say a bad word.”
“Oh,” she said.
I finished putting together Abby’s lunch, thinking of what to do with my sailor tendencies. Because when the swear jar isn’t the answer for how to stop swearing, what does work?
I could try replacing the curse words with something inoffensive – “fiddlesticks” or “bugger” or “cursed monkey pants.” I do love a good “bugger” every now and then, but it just doesn’t roll off the tongue the way the s-word does when you stub your toe.
And over time if everyone used “cursed monkey pants” instead of “motherf’ing”, doesn’t “cursed monkey pants” turn into a swear as well?
On the drive home from school that afternoon, I asked Abby, “What makes a word a bad word?”
“It’s a word you’re not supposed to say,” she explained.
“Is ‘poppycock’ a bad word?” I stifled a giggle.
She paused. “No?”
“Well, what makes a person a bad person?” I didn’t know where I was going with this.
“If they do something bad. Like if they hurt someone or steal something.”
“So it’s how someone acts that makes them a bad person or a good person?”
“Yes,” she said with confidence.
I was quiet for a bit. Then: “You know, words might be the same way.”
“How a word acts makes it bad?” she asked.
“Kinda. It’s how you use a word that makes it bad. Like if you say a word that hurts someone – on purpose or accidentally – that could make it a bad word.”
And then we were home.