It was a normal evening at home: Kate* was preparing dinner, while her six-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son bickered at the table. Suddenly, her son called out, "Mom! Sarah said the b-word! She just called me the b-word!"
Although Kate says she is used to being surprised by her children, she was still shocked to hear that word came from her six-year-old's mouth. "I stopped and immediately asked her, 'Do you know what that means?' She didn't, so I told her that it's even worse than stupid which is a bad word in our house, she really shouldn't say that to people, and that I didn't want to hear her say it again." Sarah burst into tears and ran to her room.
"I still feel bad that she cried over it...but there's something to be said about the relationship between regret and learning," says Kate. While Kate can now laugh about the incident, it still begs the question: has cursing become so common that even our Kindergarteners are picking it up?
You would have to be sleeping pretty soundly to have missed the recent publication of the adult children's book, Go the F**k to Sleep, by Adam Mansbach and Ricardo Cortes. In this whimsically-illustrated book, an array of inappropriate words appears alongside terms of endearment like "darling," "dear" and "my love."
The faux-children's bedtime story reached a peak of fame when the actor Samuel L. Jackson agreed to record his reading of it -- in an increasingly despairing tone -- for Audible, Inc. Before beginning his reading, Jackson admits that he said "go the f--k to sleep" to his young daughter so much that she began to parrot this bedtime phrase back to him. Really? He was okay saying this in front of his daughter? While admittedly, the F-word can be a useful and effective adjective at times, are more parents using it at the kids' table?
We hope not. But this book forces us parents to face the fact that inappropriate language is getting more, um, appropriate. As formerly offensive words sneak into conversations and PG-13 movies, they start to seem, well, less offensive. So where do parents draw the line? Even if you are a saint, your child is bound to hear curse words from his peers or in a YouTube video.
Care.com's Parenting Expert Dr. Robi Ludwig feels that parents should work hard to train themselves to stop cursing around their kids. "Swearing basically is a very impulsive way to talk. How you talk affects how people respond to you," she says further explaining that a person who swears sends a message that he is not in control of their impulses.
At its best, swearing is an ineloquent way to express emotions. At its worst, it actually stunts one's ability to describe his or her emotional experiences. So whether a child hears these bombs from you, at school or on TV, it's important to stop the language before it continues.
Here's what to do if your child swears:
- Don't Overreact
No matter what age your child is, address it immediately and calmly. Kids age 6 and under tend to think in black-and-white terms. Start simple: say "No swearing ever." Once they realize they said a 'bad' word, they will most likely feel shame and remorse. For older kids, who can think more abstractly, you should explain why swearing is not okay. Just remember, at some point, every kid will curse. Your goal is to make sure to help kids express their feelings, to talk and present themselves in the best way -- as well as to set boundaries.
- Nip It In the Bud
Some parents believe that calling attention to a child's inappropriate words will only encourage the behavior, so they choose to ignore these transgressions. But Dr. Ludwig encourages parents to respond promptly to such behavior, observing that "We can't assume kids know how to act unless we teach them. If you talk to them, they will get the message that there's a better way to respond." Ask your child first whether he or she understands the word. If the answer is "no," explain that the word is offensive, that it affects how others receive you and that it is not acceptable. If your child does understand the word, give him a similar speech, but know that this might need to become part of a larger conversation.
- Don't Be Tempted by YouTube Fame
Sure, a video of your cursing toddler might launch your child into his fifteen minutes at a young age, but curb the desire to pull out your videophone the next time he swears. Doing so only positively reinforces the behavior and sends a double message -- I don't want you to swear, but swearing will make my friends laugh hysterically, so could you do it one more time and look into the camera?
- Be Honest
When you reprimand your child, he or she might retort, "But I heard you/Daddy say it." Resist the urge to deny or justify your own swearing. Instead, admit that you also struggle to control what you say. By doing so you won't create a double standard -- and you'll get the added bonus of making your child feel like he is facing an adult problem.
- Find New Words
Sit down with your child and brainstorm new, non-offensive words or phrases to say when she feels frustrated, upset or angry. More often than not, children say these words when name-calling. Use this incident to discuss your child's feelings toward an acquaintance or sibling. Encourage her to use other, different words to describe how the person makes her feel. This can expand her vocabulary and help turn a bad moment into a bonding one.
- Create Consequences
If none of the above work, or if your child has already made a habit of swearing, you need stronger measures to show him that this behavior is not appropriate. Tell him that every time he swears at home, you will take fifty cents from his allowance or assign him new household chore.
What Bad Words You Say, Mama
And now, Mom and Dad, this one is for you.
- Bring on the Swear Jar
While putting a dollar in a mason jar each time you swear is the most famous technique to clean a dirty mouth, it can draw attention to swearing in the home, especially for older kids. So if swearing is a problem for just one member of the family, you may want to try another method. But if the whole family needs to work on their language, the jar can be a fun and an effective way to eliminate cursing. Put the money towards a family activity, like an evening at the movies.
- Correct Guests (Even Grandma!)
Maybe you don't swear, but what if a frequent guest, like your own mother, does? Let the guest know that, while you may be comfortable hearing these words in other settings, you do not want them in the home. If the guest persists in swearing in your home, or if she is a less regular guest, don't call attention to it in front of your child. Try to separate her from the party discreetly -- ask for help in the kitchen or offer to show them the new print hanging in your bedroom -- and repeat your request. If your children are being watched by a babysitter, talk to her about appropriate language in your household as well.
- Beware of TV and Movies
Think Johnny's coloring -- and too young to understand what's on the small screen? Think again. Swear words often get laughs and kids' ears perk up just in time to catch them.
- Find New Words
Can't help dropping the S-word every time your favorite team loses? The F-word when you stub your toe? Try finding new, less offensive -- maybe even funny and incongruous words, like "mango" -- to use in these situations. Hey, it may sound strange, but at least it's not rude.
As Dr. Ludwig notes, "Swearing is something that is definitely going to happen. Parents should know this is something to expect and that it's not a reflection of being a bad parent." But if you bought the Mansbach book, keep it on a high-shelf.
Get more parenting advice here.
*Names have been changed.