Over the holidays, I played a game with my family. My three nieces were at the table, so I did my best to clean up my potty mouth. I was so proud of myself for producing “crap” and “frick” instead of The Bad Words.
Apparently, that was not enough; my first-grade niece turned to me and scolded, “Aunt Jaclyn! You said ‘crap’ AND ‘frick’! Geez!”
After laughing heartily, I wondered: How much swearing around a kid is too much? Is everything bad? Or does it depend on the kid? What about them — when is it ok for kids to curse? I put the question out to my parent friends and the Offspring Facebook parenting group and then did a little research of my own.
What everyday parents say
From one extreme to the other, parents handle four-letter words in myriad ways. On one end of the spectrum, there are parents who never say curse words—or words appropriating curse words—in front of their kids.
“I do not swear in front of my kids. In fact, I heard (my daughter) Emmy say, ‘What the heck!’ and I was like, ‘Where did you hear language like that?’” said Lauren Waugh, a mother of two from Poland, Ohio.
On the other end are parents who don’t change their language, regardless of the tiny people afoot, and who don’t mind if their kids swear.
“In my home I swear all the f—ing time. I have a 7 and 10 year old,” said Sara Patalita, a mother of two from Rochester, Minn. “They can say whatever they want at home, but they know many people consider certain words ‘bad’ and don’t like to hear them — especially from kids. They have been generally really good at keeping that distinction, as I do at work.”
Miki, a member of Offspring’s Facebook group, has a trick she uses to clean up her language around her kids: She finds other words to substitute for the curse words. Maybe call it The Snoop Dogg Method.
“(Swearing is) a tough habit to break! … (I) use other slang and funny words, including his ‘shizzle,’” Miki writes. “(For) ‘holy s—,’ I’ll say ‘holy shish kebab.’”
Presi, also from the Facebook group, plans to borrow a tip from a friend, whose rule is that the kids can swear, but only in their rooms and only with the door closed.
“The kids grew up with a very realistic view of swearing,” Presi writes. “It wasn’t all-out forbidden, and the kids were allowed to use it to express their frustration and anger, but it had to be in a private setting and never used toward other people.”
For Jessi, it’s an age thing: “(W)hen (my kids) can drive, they can swear.”
And then there’s the distinction between swearing in general and swearing at someone, when “Oh, fuck” isn’t nearly as bad as telling someone to shut up, calling them stupid, or directing a four-letter word at them.
“I have the mouth of a sailor,” says Amanda Gannon, a mother of three from Bradley, Ill. “(My kids) are not allowed to say the F-word. They are allowed to say low-level (words) … and only on occasion and only in front of me. Never at me.”
Julie, from the Facebook group, has a similar distinction about using curse words and swearing at someone.
“My policy on swearing is that they are just words, and I allow my kids to swear so long as it is not disrespectful,” she writes. “They will get in trouble for telling someone to shut up, but I could care less if they let loose with a ‘s—!!’ when they stub their toe or something.”
What the experts say
If cursing in the form of name-calling becomes a problem, Common Sense Media, a non-profit that “helps families make smart media choices,” advises telling your kids that words can hurt and name-calling is a form of bullying.
“Point out when TV characters call each other names, and ask kids how they could have handled the situation differently,” writer Sierra Filucci with Common Sense suggests.
A common tip to curb swearing from your kids is to keep your reaction to it minimal—as tough as it can be.
“If you overreact to a certain word, it can make your child even more intrigued about using it,” Erin Boyd-Soisson, associate professor of human development and family science at Messiah College, in Grantham, Penn., told Parents.com.
Instead, the first time you hear a word you don’t want to hear, ignore it.
“Your kid will be less likely to say it again if he sees you don’t find it amusing,” according to the Parents.com article. If it happens again, “stay calm and say, ‘That’s not a nice word, and we don’t use it in our house.’”
Then there’s the total opposite end of the spectrum: Neuroscientist Emma Byrne says kids as young as two should actually be taught swear words and the impact they can have. This way, the message is coming from parents, not peers.
“I want to equip parents to cope with that moment of shame and embarrassment of ‘My kid swore in a place that was inappropriate,’” Byrne, author of “Swearing is Good for You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language,” told the Independent. “If we don’t talk about swearing with our kids and they learn swearing just from their classmates on the playground, they’re not going to have a sense of how swearing affects people’s feelings.”