The Art of Swearing
Many parents don't think much about the language they use until they hear themselves being mimicked by their children. Just as a tape plays back what it records, children often record into their memory their parents' bad words.
Dad banging his hand on a pipe, Mom burning the roast or even both parents arguing can offer a lesson in words that a parent may not have wanted to teach. Once children learn this new word or phrase, they oftentimes may see fit to repeat it at the most inopportune times.
Sue Poremba, a mom from State College, Pa., understands how learned words can be repeated at any given moment.
"We're big college football fans in my house," says Poremba. "Our team was undefeated but ranked number two. It was Thanksgiving and the number one team was playing. The whole family was interested in the game and we weren't cheering for the number one team to win. Near the end of the game, the number one team scored a touchdown, putting them ahead. My son, who was 5, began bumping his head on the couch and muttering, 'Damn it, damn it, damn it.' We looked at him in surprise. We'd never heard him swear before. He looked at us in return and said, 'They scored a touchdown. What else am I supposed to say? Hooray?' I guess that sometimes a cuss word is the only word that works, so we shrugged it off. He hasn't sworn since – that we've heard."
Young children are very impressionable, regardless of whether from words or actions. Although not deliberately, parents may be teaching their children not only the "bad" words, but the attitude and negativity that go along with them.
"I think the real problem with kids swearing, if they are hearing it from their parents in particular, it's that they are not just picking up the word, they are picking up the tone and that attitude," says Jim O'Connor, author of Cuss Control. "We tell kids they can show other emotions as parents do, but we do no allow them to show anger as parents do. It may get very confusing for a child. One reason why we swear so much these days is that everything is so informal. In most high schools, children think there are standard ways to express certain emotions that include swearing words. They feel this way because they have been hearing their parents express themselves this way since they were small children. Even role models have begun to use swear words. These children hear these words from all the adults they look up to and wonder why they can't (swear too)."
Whether due to informality or habit, there are times when parents are able to offer an explanation to their children as to why they use swear words.
"Yes, we curse," says Wendy Baker, a mom from Florida., "So we have a rule in our house: You are not old enough to curse until you have a full-time job and pay rent. Even the little ones understand that they are not allowed to say bad words unless they are like their older siblings who work outside the home and pay Mom and Dad rent every week."
On the other hand, the use of swearing may not only cause difficulty for the child but also for the parents themselves.
"I don't use foul language, but my husband does," says Crystal Cook of Knoxville, Tenn. "I've asked my husband to please not use that language at home, around the kids, but he gets so upset while watching sporting events, or when a problem arises at home, that he can't seem to hold them in. He works and golfs with some men that don't have children, and their language is almost a continuous stream of curse words. He usually says, 'I'm a grown man and I'll talk like I want to. When the kids grow up, then if they want to use cuss words, they can.' It's a real trouble spot for us."
In situations where swearing causes problems between parents as well as the children, it is best for the parents to work this out, says O'Connor.
"Parents have to recognize you have a certain obligation to raise your kids properly," he says. "And they also have to realize that they have a relationship with their spouse, which they want to work. Marriage takes work. Perhaps parents can make a trade off. If one parent doesn't like the other swearing, let them know and offer to make an effort to 'fix' a habit or a trait that they have in exchange. Both parents trying is not only healthy but also the smart and easiest way to come to a compromise."
Parents do not intend to teach their children to swear but at times, it happens. In the event that a child learns and uses swear words, regardless of age, parents should take the time to discuss, simply and basically, why these types of words are not appropriate for children to use, O'Connor says.
"Kids do pick up all kinds of words," he says. "Parents should let children know they shouldn't be using those words and that the parents shouldn't be, either. Once kids get to a certain age parents can explain why it's a bad word. Use simple explanations – don't make it too complicated. Explaining what they mean and offering alternatives should be included. I think too much, too often parents say 'those are bad words, don't use them' and the kids don't understand why.Even kids need some sort of an explanation other then 'I told you so' or 'Cause I say so.' They need more then those types of reasons."
How does a parent deal with a child who uses swear words? The old threat of "washing the mouth out with soap" doesn't hold as much power as it once did.
"I think punishment is not necessarily the right way to go," O'Connor says."It also kind of depends on when the words are used. If a child is angry and swearing, that's not the time to talk about swearing, it's the time to talk about the anger. Then later, you can say, 'By the way, now that we have resolved this problem, I really wish you wouldn't use that kind of language even when you're upset.' Children must understand that there are alternatives to using swear words to express anger."
There are very common expressions that can show emotion and feeling just as strongly as those that contain swear words. Examples include: "For crying out loud," "For Pete's sake," "Gosh darn it" and "I don't believe this." Offering children an alternative to swear words can help them to learn to express their feelings and emotions in any given situation without using "bad" words. Parents who wish to curb or cease their own habit of using swear words can follow the same advice.
"Even using a silly word like 'dagnabit' will help," O'Connor says. "It will sound silly to you and everyone around you but it actually calms you down, you actually maintain control. It will also lighten up the mood of the entire situation. If you get mad and say the 'F' word, people around you are a little uncomfortable and don't want to deal with you, they avoid you. But if you say 'dagnabit,' people laugh and say, 'What's the problem?' When kids come up with crazy words, and use them in substitution of cuss words, it's fine. Using crazy words that no one has ever heard of, as well as common words used out of their normal context, such as 'holy mackerel,' takes the emphasis off the negativity of a situation and puts it more on the expression of what they are feeling."
Young kids are taught to cry when sad and laugh when happy. Teaching children alternatives to "bad" words will offer a child the ability to express the anger and frustration that they feel as well.
"Swearing is not a prerequisite for getting angry or showing emotion," O'Connor says. "You can express anger without using swear words. There's always an option. There's always an alternative."