What To Do When Your Kid Says "&#$%!" / How to break the cursing habit in you and your kids.

WORDS
Julie Lyons
ILLUSTRATION
John J. Custer
UPDATED
July 31, 2013
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Your 5-year-old is sitting in the back, strapped in his child seat. You pull into carline, clipping the edge of a traffic cone. Your mind is somewhere else: Did I buy the broccolini?
 
Then you hear a muffled word. You snap to attention: “What did you say?”
 
Your child repeats it, with a twinge of doubt in his voice. But you heard it right. Oh yes, you did.
 
My sweet little boy has just dropped an F-bomb.
 
Now, being the sensible parent you are, which is the appropriate response:
 
a.)   Pull out your iPhone, hit video and ask him to repeat it. He does. “DJ, that’s not a nice word,” you protest lamely. He repeats it again, and you keep filming, chuckling under your breath. Then you upload it to YouTube as “Cute kid drops F-bomb.” You’re at 675,221 views now.

b.)   Go ballistic. You yank the car to the side of the road, shoot the death stare at your kindergartener, and tell him in a bloodcurdling voice that “You will NEVER say that word again OR ELSE!” Your kindergartener’s eyes get big, and you can almost see the synapses firing as he quietly calculates the terrible power of this word he has just uttered.

c.)   Rack your brains to see who you can blame. The media! The school! His friends! Meanwhile, your tongue is stuck in your throat. Because you realize … yep, gotta suck it up and cop to it … the problem is you. He learned that word from you. Feeling like a big, fat hypocrite, you contemplate how to negotiate the old do-as-I-say-but-not-as-I-do conundrum.

d.)   Get a hold of yourself. Which could mean, under the circumstances: stifling the urge to laugh; squelching the impulse to shriek; deciding you won’t pretend it didn’t happen. Calmly and in a measured voice, you say, “That’s a really bad word – we don’t say that. If you use it again, there will be consequences.”

Congratulations on choosing d., even if it wasn’t your choice in the heat of the moment.  You’re on your way to addressing a problem most parents encounter: when your child brings home a curse word for the first time, or, alternatively, you realize he’s picking up those words from you, and it’s time to do a family reality check. (Because you don’t, in fact, want your little scion to land on YouTube as “Bad Azz Kid of The Week: Where Are The Adults?”)
 
If it’s any comfort, our experts had to stifle a few laughs themselves. But Suzanne Stevenson, Family Life Education program manager for The Parenting Center in Fort Worth, and Wendy Middlemiss, Ph.D., an educational psychologist at the University of North Texas, offered practical advice for dealing with that first curse word – or breaking an emerging habit. Because, despite the seeming coolness of colleagues and friends who weave cuss words into every sentence with an ersatz eloquence, “In the long run, people aren’t thought of well if they use those words,” as Middlemiss says. And you can use that line on your kids.
 
The first cuss word
Developmentally, there are a couple – shall we say, milestones – to consider. Such as that first cuss word. Chances are, a young child doesn’t even understand the word, especially if it’s one of the really bad ones. Or she might have the vaguest notion that it’s a powerful, risky word yet realizes it’s one that gets immediate attention from adults, like the S-word or F-word.
 
“It does have power – it makes people take notice,” Middlemiss says. “It’s a type of power that can be easily had by somebody. All they have to do is say the word. So, one of the first things to do is take away that power by having almost no response.”
 
If you gasp or respond in visible anger, your child might be thinking, “Look what I got from it.” Instead, firmly explain that the word is inappropriate: “We don’t use that word in our home – it’s not a nice word.” From there, the fundamentals of parenting come into play: Communicate the expectations. State the consequences. Follow through every time.
 
This is also an opportune time to offer substitute words for cursing (see our favorites, below) – or develop your child’s emotional IQ. “Usually when people use those words, it’s because they lack an emotional vocabulary,” Stevenson explains. So when your 3-year-old is having a fit because you didn’t buy the cereal box he wanted, articulate the feeling for him: “I know you’re really [frustrated, angry, upset] that you didn’t get the cereal box you wanted today.”
 
Take the time, put words to the emotions, and it will pay dividends later.
 
Family reality check
Yours might be a home where Mom and Dad never, ever curse – OK, probably not. Or it might be a home like the one I grew up in, where my parents rarely swore – unless they rammed their big toe into the doorframe. And then they uttered a certain readily decipherable German cuss word. But maybe you’ve cursed early and often, and now you realize it’s time to change your ways, because it isn’t quite as adorable when Kyle gets caught saying it in his second-grade classroom.
 
What you model, of course, is your child’s guide. “If you model the language, they follow your language,” Stevenson says. “Even if they’re teenagers and try out those words, they will feel very uncomfortable using them.” All of the research backs this up. “What we model we reinforce. It matters not a hoot what we say,” Middlemiss says.
 
But let’s say you’ve already blown it, and your child has picked up a few swear words. Look at the bright side: This is a great opportunity to demonstrate that Mom and Dad sometimes have to say they’re sorry and amend their ways, just like they expect their children to. “You know what, Mommy just said a very bad word, and I’m sorry. I’ll work hard not to say it again.”
 
Consider a cursing jar. Each time a family member curses, he drops a quarter in the jar. Whoever goes through the whole week with the fewest quarters gets the whole stash. Your child will be excited about the possibility of ending up with all of Mommy’s quarters.
 
TV and movies with forbidden words are a prime opportunity to talk. Did you forget about that handful of swear words in your favorite childhood film, E.T.? Acknowledge the behavior, Middlemiss says. Address the words at an age-appropriate level. For example, the word “gay”: “That’s an inappropriate use of that word, which refers to a group of people. When you use that word, it’s not respectful.” Or the F-word: “That is a word that refers to sex, and it is never respectful.”
 
You’ll get the usual rejoinders, but you can deal with it: “So why does Grammy get to say those words?”
 
“Because when you’re as old as Grammy, you can do what you want to.”
 
Until then …

Published August 2013
SIDEBAR

Not Quite Curse-words


Our staff searched their childhoods for their favorite curse-word substitutes. Here they are:

1. Cheese and rice!
2. Shiitake mushrooms!
3. Scheiss!
4. Dadgummit!
5. Dangnabbit!
6. What in the Sam Hill?!
7. Hades!
8. H-E Double hockey sticks!


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