Curb the Cussing
Actors in movies do it, athletes do it, even presidential candidates do it. So it's no surprise that most children have a vocabulary that includes a curse word or two – or three or four.
Regardless of what it's called – slang, cussing, cursing, foul language or swearing – it all means the same thing: using words that are considered inappropriate.
What's Wrong with Cussing?
Compared with other activities that preteenagers could involve themselves in, the use of swear words seems minor. "It's not the worst thing kids can do," says Jim O'Connor, author of Cuss Control (Three Rivers Press, 2000). "Kids are told not to take drugs, not to get in fights ... they are told all the things they cannot do and they think, 'Can't I even swear?'"
Parents need to understand that a child who swears is not a bad kid, but just a kid that uses "bad" words, O'Connor says.
If curse words are just that – words – what is it about them that makes them so inappropriate? Perhaps it is not the words themselves, but the attitude that accompanies their use. "So many of the swear words are used in such a negative way," O'Connor says. "Some use them joking around, but most of the swearing is a negative expression of criticism, complaining, grumbling or just plain negativity. Who wants to hear that?"
But if you want to curb the cussing in your family, next to breaking out the soap and washing out a mouth or two, what can you do?
Cussing Doesn't Equal Cool
Parents who want to rid their children's vocabulary of swearing should ask their children why they feel they need to say these words. "Why do you use these words?" is a good question to initiate conversation to find the cause of an inappropriate vocabulary.
The answer may or may not be what parents are expecting. "Most kids indicate they swear because their friends swear, because they want to be cool or because they want to fit in," O'Connor says. "We've gotten to the point in society where we need to show strength, macho-ism – even the girls. It's rough out there, so we have to show we are tough and we don't take any crap from anybody. The use of foul language is related with being tough, rough and ready for whatever comes along."
Yet the use of "bad" language when trying to be cool or to fit in with a crowd can actually result in the opposite of what was hoped for, O'Connor says. Preteenagers may need to reconsider what "being cool" is all about.
"Being cool means you have control – you have emotional control," O'Connor says. "Being cool is when you find solutions when everyone else is complaining. You think of a way out or an easier way of doing things even when upset. When everyone else is upset, you think of a positive angle to everything – that's being cool. If you do that, you are going to be cool, you are going to be respected and people are going to say he or she has a good head on his or her shoulders."
Find a Substitute
As swearing can breed negativity, parents should strive to help their child overcome these feelings and find an alternate method of expressing emotion – whatever emotion it may be. "Using crazy words that no one has ever heard of, as well as common words used out of their normal context takes the emphasis off the negativity and puts it more on the expression of what the teen is feeling," O'Connor says. "People feel that if a word or phrase is silly or crazy, that others will look at them funny and think they are nuts, but in all actuality, these expressions offer the same amount of emphasis to the expression of disgust, anger or frustration – whatever the case may be – without being offensive or negative."
Sue Poremba, an editor from State College, Pa., recalls her mother using the word "fudge" as a substitute. "She said it was more polite," Poremba says. "When I was in high school, the phrase 'Holy Birds' became very popular as a replacement for swearing."
Some kids create alternative words that enable them to speak and express their emotions freely without the risk of penalties for bad language. "We all have little brothers or sisters who we can't cuss around and we can't swear on the bus or at school, so we kind of invented our own. Words like 'shoobers' or 'hoobie-doobie' can be heard all the time," says Alec Shoemaker, a preteenager from Chester, Va. "Yeah, maybe the way we use them is the same as other people use cuss words, but our words don't get us in trouble."
Be a Good Model
Finally, parents need to set good examples and stand by what they say, says O'Connor. "I think the real problem with kids swearing is that they are hearing it from their parents," he says. "Even though the parents themselves are telling their children not to use the 'bad' words, they are setting an example of their use – sometimes without even realizing it. If parents don't want their kids to use the words, they need to remove the words from their own vocabulary."
Poremba confesses that she, her husband and their friends use cuss words. "Our children learned from us, no question," Poremba says. "Thing is, we don't tell our kids that they can't use the words. What we have done is discussed the inappropriate times to use the words – like at school. We've also discussed appropriate ways to use the words."
Sometimes we all swear without meaning to. If this happens, discuss it with your child. "When parent's swear, out of anger or anything else, there's absolutely nothing wrong with their apologizing to their kids for their choice of words," O'Connor says. "There is always an alternative to swearing or bad language. The secret is to find it."