All parents deal with it sooner or later — that innocent little mouth on your child utters some lewd profanity and your whole body instantly freezes. Did they really just say that?
Whether you have a very young child who cracks you up by mimicking swear words or an older adolescent who uses them as weapons, dealing with kids who swear can be challenging.
Why do kids swear?
Some children use swearing to get attention. Parents often predictably scold or even laugh at a child who uses adult language. Those kids learn that swearing gets them seen and heard, and they repeat the behavior.
Other kids use curse words to look “cool” in front of their friends. Smaller children simply say swear words because they’re copying adult behavior — they probably don’t even realize what they’re saying is a “bad” word. As children grow older, curse words can become a way to rebel and test boundaries, which adolescents love to do.
Where do they learn it?
Kids absorb information and express it outwardly as they learn about themselves as individuals. Part of that information is the swearing they hear from adults or peers. Children naturally model their behavior after that of their parents. This includes the slip of profanity you utter when you’re frustrated, even if you never swear. Children also learn from the TV shows and media they’re exposed to.
Finally, kids learn about swearing from other kids. Even at school, they find ways to push the boundaries in secret. Swearing is often considered “cool” to other kids because it’s a social sign that the kid is rebellious and brave.
What’s an appropriate age to start cursing?
The answer to this question will be different for every family. Some parents never allow their children to swear, but teenagers are likely already doing it in social settings. Other parents allow younger children to swear at home only and without the use of verbal abuse. In some families, there’s a transition time into adulthood that brings with it the privilege of swearing, such as when kids learn to drive or undergo puberty.
Maturity and the ability to understand the meaning of swear words plays a big factor in determining when a kid should be allowed to swear (if ever). A more mature child will be able to better understand the consequences of swearing.
10 appropriate ways to handle your kid’s cursing.
1. Watch your own language.
Your kids model your behavior, and if you’re someone who swears all the time, they’ll model that, too. Try to cut back on your swearing to set a good example for your kids, and remember, they’re always watching.
2. Explain why swearing is bad.
Help your child understand exactly why you don’t want them swearing. Depending on age, you may want to explain the literal meaning behind swear words so your child understands why they’re inappropriate for kids. Explain the social impact of swearing, too, and how it can intimidate and embarrass your kid’s peers.
3. Teach alternatives.
Give your child substitutes to use instead of curse words. Depending on your level of comfort, “darn” or “frick” could be ideal alternatives. Silly substitute words still allow your child to express frustration because they are still kind of taboo, but they’re not as bad as other traditional swear words.
4. Explain that swearing is only for adults, not kids.
When kids begin experimenting with swear words at a young age, it’s good to explain that swearing is for “grown-ups only.” This is an easy concept for young ones because they already accept so many other things as being “grown-up only,” such as driving, drinking beer or going to work. If kids think of swearing as just another adult thing, they’re less likely to mimic it.
5. Use discipline measures.
We’ve all heard of the “swear jar,” which can be effective for older children and teenagers. Any time anyone in the house (including yourself) swears, they add some of their own money to the jar. Instead, you could assign extra chores or take away privileges. Positive discipline is also a great option.
6. Offer an outlet.
Know and accept that they’re probably still going to do it when you’re not around. Sometimes, placing too much of a boundary or taboo on behavior can cause a child to rebel with even more of that behavior. By offering an outlet to your child where they’re allowed to swear, they’re less likely to feel like . pushing the boundaries. Perhaps this means looking the other way if you kid swears when they get hurt or restricting the swearing to their room only.
7. Harmless vs. hurtful swearing.
Some families choose to a softer stance on swearing by focusing more on the context and purpose of it. Cursing used against others in an emotionally abusive way are different than swearing expressing frustration or pain, which don’t impact others. By allowing your child to swear in “harmless” ways, or ways that aren’t intended to hurt others, you’ll help them build a positive outlook on cursing.
8. Monitor kids’ media exposure.
YouTube videos, Netflix shows and other media are constantly in the hands of kids, who can control what they watch with alarming ease. It’s a no-brainer, but make sure to monitor your child’s media habits as part of your effort to curb them from swearing. It’s going to be much more tempting for a child to swear when they constantly see it in on the screen.
9. Ignore it.
Lots of kids using swearing to gain attention, even if it’s negative attention. Because of this, the best way to discourage swearing in younger kids is to ignore it. Children learning to speak will repeat curse words they hear without knowing any better. If saying the word isn’t reinforced by laughter or scolding, the child will likely forget it.
Sometimes, compromise is the best way to get your kids to cooperate. You might allow your child one word allowed for use at home if your child in turn promises not to swear outside the home. When a child feels they can be trusted to make the right choices at the right time, they’re less likely to want to act out.
Keep up the good work!
Parenting is hard, and your kid swearing isn’t the end of the world. You could be fighting much more serious battles. However, if a child’s too comfortable with swearing — a taboo behavior for kids — they’ll likely be too comfortable acting out in other ways. Talking to your child about swearing and working together is really the best way to move forward. A healthy understanding of swearing will prepare your child to handle it with grace. And you’ll feel good as a parent knowing you’ve helped your child understand this adult behavior.
Valerie Sizelove is a freelance writer of blog posts, career guides and more. Her specialties lie in writing about mental health, administration and parenting. When she's not writing up a storm, you might find Valerie cooking a huge dinner for her family of 6 or tinkering around in her amateur vegetable garden. Books are pretty good, too. You can find her on LinkedIn and Facebook.