Watch your language

I was inching the station wagon out of a parking lot and down a slight incline on an icy winter day when I realized I was in trouble. The car began to slide past the stop sign into the city street, and another car was headed in our direction from the left, certain to ram the driver’s side if my brakes didn’t engage quickly enough.

That’s when I uttered a loud, emphatic swear word. (I’ll give you a hint: it starts with an S, and it’s not “stupid.”)

Fortunately, the antilock brakes kicked in, the other car swerved slightly, and an accident was averted. My three kids, who were about 6, 4 and 2 at the time, were safely strapped into their car seats and were uninjured, but the damage had been done. The incident was burned into their memories, and they continued to mention it for years. “Mama swore! Hey, remember the time that Mama said a bad word?!”

It’s a funny story, considering all the vulgarities my kids are exposed to now—not from me, but from being out in the world among other tweens, teens, and adults—but I think it illustrates an important point: whether your own language is as pure as the newly fallen snow or as salty as a Minnesota road in February, sooner or later, your kids are going to hear a “bad” word, and you’re going to need a strategy for dealing with it.

Getting the message across

Kathleen Olson, a retired family educator with the University of Minnesota Extension, says if parents haven’t already been talking to their kids about vulgar language by the time the kids reach the tween years, it’s certainly not too late. She recommends a conversational approach rather than a lecture.

“Take a stand as a parent and explain that swearing is inappropriate. Talk with them about how it makes them appear to others, especially older adults, and even their own peers,” she says.

Olson says it’s a good idea to brainstorm with your kids about how they can get their message across without swearing. Are they swearing out of frustration, or out of anger? Help them expand their vocabulary and express those emotions in a more productive way.

“Explain that cursing doesn’t solve problems, it just adds to it. It can become a vicious cycle, and it does not impress most people,” she says.

Swear words can have negative effects besides simply being unpleasant to hear. The act of swearing can make kids appear less intelligent and less mature, it can change how teachers, peers and potential employers view them, and it can increase their feelings of hostility and anger. It also can escalate into a form of verbal abuse, bullying, and sexual harassment.

Sometimes tweens begin swearing because they pick it up from outside sources—through music, TV shows, or friends. If your kids’ friends are visiting and use words your kids aren’t allowed to use, Olson recommends being firm in explaining that your home is a swear-free zone.

“As kids get older, into their teen years, I think they are using it sometimes to show their independence, to try to shock their parents,” she says. “If you give too huge a reaction, and don’t find the time to talk calmly about the language, it’s working—they’re shocking their parents really well.”

Swearing doesn’t always come from outside sources, though. Some kids mimic words they hear from their own parents. Olson says this can be trickier to address, especially if one parent swears and the other doesn’t. She says it’s best to be upfront with your kids, and say: “I, myself, as a parent need to work on this, too. We can call each other on it.”

Some families create a “swear jar,” and agree that every person in the house must contribute a certain amount, whether it’s a quarter or a dollar, when they break the rule. Then they spend the proceeds on a family activity, like going out for dinner together. Other families may take a more punitive approach for infractions, like taking away electronics for 24 hours. Olson says it’s helpful to involve the tweens in setting up the consequences—often they’re harder on themselves than a parent would be.

We don’t have a family swear jar at my house because we’re all pretty mellow with our word choices. But now that my oldest daughter is driving, it could be a good idea; you just never know what kind of language the Minnesota weather might inspire.

Joy Riggs is a mother of three teenagers. She lives in Northfield. Send comments or questions to