When Your Child Starts to Swear

Boy with face in hands

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Will all children experiment with profanity? Probably. Some are better at applying a parental censor chip than others, but trust me, that is just a juicy bowl of noodles waiting to be gobbled up and evaluated by your budding adolescent.

Our wake up call came when Daughter 1 came home from school one day, cocked her curly blonde head to the side, and asked, “Mommy, what are all of the bad words?” 

My first thought (after the shock that she was even asking about them) was, “Yeah, right…like I am going to give you punch list of profanity. I don’t think so!” I asked her why she needed to know. She said, “Well, the boys on the bus are saying a lot of words I think are bad but I don’t know for sure, and I don’t know what makes a bad word.”

She had an excellent point. We had not actually explained profanity or inappropriate words to our children yet.

I swore from time to time when I was younger and was cured of most of that by two things. First, when I was dating my husband, he casually mentioned that people who swear generally lack the imagination or intelligence to think of something better to say. Ouch! Second, when I had children I became even more aware of what was coming out of my mouth, and that little ears were recording it for life, whether consciously or subconsciously.

I carefully explained that, “No, I would not give her a list of bad words.”

It would be irresponsible on my part since she might not ever hear some of them and I might miss some she would. Instead, Dad and I promised that if she heard a word she thought was bad, she could come to us and ask us if it was bad without getting in trouble for saying it. We would tell her if it was and why.  I explained to her that bad words change over time and from culture to culture, and sometimes you just have to trust your gut or the way the person is saying it to tell you if it is inappropriate. This was very important with sexual orientation, racial, or gender slurs and she would hear many of those as she got older. I explained how hurtful they can be and that she should never use them, even if she was really mad at someone.

That night my husband and I talked about how we could explain swear words in terms she would understand, and many of them boiled down to: “That is slang used to refer to a sexual part of the body or the sex act and most people who heard it would find it offensive and think the person who said it was not very intelligent.” That definition covered a lot of ground.

If your child does not come to you asking about bad words, but just starts using them, address the behavior as soon as you hear it. Feel free to borrow the line, “Profanity is a substitute for saying something intelligent.”

Whatever you need to do, make sure your child understands that inappropriate language sets up an image of him or her that they may not enjoy having, even if they like the temporary shock value with their friends. It can really get them in trouble at school, too. If there is someone they truly need to put in their place, there is always a better way to do it. As they grow, and particularly when they are in formal or business situations, it is is an advantage not to be in the habit of using profanity. It can slip out at the most inopportune times!

One story:  Daughter 2 was having great difficulty with a boy on the bus who kept swearing and bugging her. One day she looked down her nose at him and said in a voice that rang through the bus, ” You are a real Homo Sapien. Leave me alone.” He was appalled and looked around at the kids who were giggling at him and yelled, “I am not, and I’m telling my mom you called me a Homo Sapien!”  🙂

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