Parenthood is riddled with many unexpected moments – including the first time one hears their precious, innocent child utter a swear word. As a kid grows up and their vocabulary expands, it’s more likely than not that they’ll pick up a few expletives along the way. But while the first time a child drops an f-bomb will be shocking (or even amusing), how parents react will largely influence how the child perceives bad language and future behaviour. So how should one react to this situation?
Why do children swear?
When young children swear, it’s less of an intentional act and usually a matter of simply repeating a word they’ve heard. Mimicking different words is natural as they’re developing verbal skills and learning how to use language to communicate.
In contrast, there may be several reasons why school-age kids swear. If it’s an unfamiliar word, they may not understand the meaning behind it or know that it is offensive. If they heard it from an adult, they are able to pick up that it is an emotionally charged word or phrase – it may seem like a cool expression.
Older kids may also be trying to get attention. Whether it’s swearing to fit in socially – trying to be part of their friend group or gaining shock value to what they’re saying – or to get a reaction from their parents.
While researchers believe that swearing helps to relieve stress and invoke a form of cathartic release, relying on profanities as a method to express strong emotions may stunt one’s ability to express themselves emotionally. Many adults are also guilty of cultivating this bad habit.
Some of us may have gone through the ordeal of having soap shoved into our mouths or the threat of being “force-fed chilli” as a consequence to swearing, but we all know how that worked out! You can evoke discipline without resorting to harsh measures – this is important because a parent’s overreaction can cause the child to become even more intrigued to use strong language.
Plan your reaction
Instead of immediately responding to whatever vulgarity your child has said, keep your cool. Younger children especially are in tune to your reactions, so before it even happens, figure out how you want to act when they first start swearing. Learn to read your own feelings so that you’ll recognise when to fall back on your prepared reaction plan.
Be open about it
Instead of flaring up or ignoring his behaviour, speak to your child about his choice of words. A toddler may not fully understand the meaning of that word, but older children are able to comprehend that words can hurt or offend others. Calmly explain that the word used was unkind, and that using expletives are not okay – explain why in a rational manner.
Teach them what it truly means
Older kids may already have an inkling of what each expletive means – they will benefit from a simple explanation. Sit down with your child to figure out the depth of his understanding, and offer him simple but real definitions of each word. Maintaining a matter-of-fact attitude takes away the power and mystique of swearing.
Give logical reasons not to swear
The words we use in everyday life shapes how we think and feel, and colours other people’s perceptions of ourselves. Gently let your child know how people may judge him for using strong language – use reasons that will resonate strongly with him.
For example, if your child is a people person, you could say, “When I hear someone swear, it makes me think that they may be easily violent, or that they make be trying to hard to seem cool.” Basically, give them an internal incentive that will act as a self-reminder not to swear.
Set a good example
While we’re all exceptionally careful about swearing in front of our kids, frustrating situations may accidentally trigger a slip up. In such cases, it will be difficult to convey to kids that “We don’t use vulgarities”, or “These words are not nice”. To prevent your child from reacting to ‘hypocritical’ behaviour, create an encouraging environment for your kids to point out when you use bad language. It will be easier to enforce limits and discipline when both parent and child are equally accountable for their actions.
Encourage creative examples (fudge for f***, banana for b****, jellyfish for dummy, etc.) to help your kids figure out a way to express their emotions without resorting to using strong language. At the very least, their ‘swearing’ won’t be as offensive.
Also, actively show your kid that it is possible to express themselves differently in difficult situations. For example, you could express that you are feeling “angry” or “frustrated” – this way, you’re modelling a better way of expressing feelings.
As your child gets older, it stands to reason that the sources where they’re exposed to vulgarities grow as well. Beyond making sure that every adult family member are on the same page of not using vulgarities in your child’s presence, parents should also supervise, check and limit exposure to TV shows, online media, games etc., which may potentially subject their child to unbecoming language.
Negative influence from your child’s peers is harder to deal with, but not impossible. Instead of approaching the situation with a harsh or disciplinary mentality, encourage him to share about how he felt when his classmate cursed. Run through various scenarios of how your child can react to it instead of copying harsh behaviour, or lashing back with expletives. If your child shares instances where they hear or are subjected to a classmate’s vulgar behaviour, commend him for not rising to the bait and walking away from the situation. Also, if you notice him dealing with his anger or frustration in an appropriate manner, make sure to praise him.