What to Do When Your Child Swears

Every parent, at one time or another, is faced with the dilemma: What should you do when your young child swears? Whether you call them swear words, curse words, cuss words, or simply bad words, the issue of children swearing is a hotly debated one. How do we parents answer that timeless question put forth by millions of children: “Why is it okay if you swear but I can’t?” I am going to divulge my personal “curse” experience from my childhood and with my four year old Anne in order to help you with your own child’s swearing.

Find out why your child is swearing.

Why do children swear? In my experience, it depends on their age. My 4-year-old daughter was simply repeating words she heard from others when she decided to blurt out a certain colorful swear word which begins with the letter F. Young children, from the time they begin speaking to about 6 or 7 years old, may swear because they are exploring language and repeating word that they have heard from other sources-friends, TV shows, music, maybe even their parents. They don’t know the context behind swear words and don’t know they are inappropriate on their own.

Older children, such as those from 7 until those testy teenage years, are old enough to understand that certain words are impolite to use. When older children use swear words, they tend to be using them to manipulate friends or family members through the reactions that swearing causes. Swearing makes other kids and sometimes even adults laugh! Swearing loudly in public can make a parent panic and offer bribes and treats in exchange for silence. Swearing gets a reaction.

So, is your child swearing because they don’t know any better, or because they want to get a reaction? When you determine this, you’re ready to deal with the problem.

React appropriately to the swear words.

Children swearing can have a strange comedic effect on adults. It’s almost like seeing a toddler in a business suit, playing at being an adult while she’s still in diapers. There’s something funny about children who do adult things, like pick up phones or pretend to do paperwork… or swear.

Unfortunately, laughter is one of the worst reactions you can have to your child swearing. Laughter reinforces behavior by associating it with a positive reaction. A child sings a song and you laugh? The child will want to sing a song again. The child says a swear word and you laugh? The child will want to repeat it.

My first instinct when Anne swore was, I admit it, to laugh. It was surprising, out of nowhere, and something about it was just unnaturally hilarious. I’m proud to say that I managed to only crack a half-smile before regaining control of myself.

What is the appropriate reaction to a child saying a swear word? Being calm. Remaining calm will allow you to teach your child about impolite words in a level-headed manner which does not reinforce the word or make your child think they’ve done something horribly, terribly wrong.

After I regained control, I knelt down to Anne’s level and asked her where she heard the word. She told me she had heard it from a movie I watched a few days ago. My mind immediately reeled back to some generic action flick, which had its share of swearing, that I rented over the weekend. I had it playing while I was working on the computer and it slipped my mind that Anne was awake and playing in her room. She no doubt overheard the word and waited until the right moment to test it out.

Inform your child of the rules regarding swear words and lay out consequences.

Before Anne blurted out a swear word, I hadn’t thought much about what I would do if she ever started swearing. When I was growing up, every adult in my family swore constantly and, not surprisingly, I began to swear at an early age and only curbed my habit when I had Anne. So, I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to say when confronted with the problem.

First, I told her that that word was a bad word. She asked me why. Again, I was stumped. I hadn’t thought about it before. It took me a few moments to come up with (which I stand by): “Some words are bad because they aren’t polite to say.” I then reminded her about being polite-like saying please, thank you, and waiting patiently-and being not polite, like saying give me, screaming, and grabbing for things.

Laying out the rules and consequences was my next step. I really had to come up with my rules and consequences on the spot, but hopefully you will be more prepared. In my opinion, rules regarding swear words (especially if you have young child) should be clear and consistent. A word is allowed to be said by adults, or no one in the house should use the world. My rules were that no one was allowed to say bad words in the house.

Next, you’ll need consequences. What your consequences are really depends on the child. I feel that taking anyone privileges and something they enjoy such as games or toys or playtime is a successful way to reinforce good behavior. In my house, the rule became: If anyone said bad words, they would have to put a quarter in a jar. My daughter receives a weekly allowance, which is currently her most prized possession, so I decided that a consequence involving money was the best choice for her. And me.

How to answer “Why is it okay if YOU swear but I can’t?”

I’m not perfect. Sometimes, I still slip up and swear. It’s a habit I’ve had for years and it sometimes come back to haunt me. When Anne catches me swearing, she usually pouts, points to the swear jar, and reminds me that I’m using not-polite words. I apologize, and we move on. But once in a while, she asks that age old question every parent is faced with at one point: Why is it okay if adults swear, but children shouldn’t?

I didn’t have an answer for this right away, but after some polling among friends and self-thought, I’ve come up with an explanation that I think will make sense (even if they think it’s unfair) to most children. I remind Anne that there are certain things in life that only adults are allowed to do-like buy cigarettes or see R-rated movies or buy certain drinks. Swear words are just like that.

It’s not a perfect explanation by any means, but it’s simplistic enough that most children will accept it. At least until they get to their teen years and decide that anything you say is bull-hooey, anyway!

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