I Swear. How do I teach my child not to curse when I have such a foul mouth?’s Parental Advisory.

Parental Advisory: I Swear

How do I get my kid to stop cursing when I can’t? by Rebecca Odes & Ceridwen Morris

March 25, 2009



My daughter has just gotten to the point where she’s repeating things we say to her, which is really fun. Unfortunately, it’s also made me realize that I use a lot of words that would be inappropriate for her to repeat. So, easy, stop swearing right? But it’s not so easy. I grew up in a very repressed religious household where we were punished for saying “bad words.” Learning to swear as an adult was very empowering for me, and the thought of giving it up now makes me feel like a helpless kid again. I also don’t want to pass down my parents’ harsh views (only bad people use bad words, etc.) onto my child. How can I do the right thing here? – I Swear

Dear I Swear,

Your question gets at the heart of one of the biggest child-rearing challenges there is: reconciling your upbringing with your parenting. No one wants to torture their kids in the same way they were tortured. But then, when your parenting choices are made in direct reaction to things you hated about your own childhood, it’s hard to know whether you’re acting for your children or for yourself.

There is a vast array of options between letting your f*ck flag fly and washing your kid’s mouth out with soap. Finding the one you’re comfortable with may take a little mental self-examination. You seem to have a good handle on why cursing meant so much to you. You also know – if you think about it – that your daughter’s situation will be different.

One of us has a mother with a mouth like a trucker. She stuck by her controversial vocabulary while raising kids, perhaps for similar reasons – it felt like part of who she was – or perhaps because she couldn’t have stopped it if she’d tried. Her loose lips may have contributed to some cross-generational camaraderie, but there was also a fair amount of humiliation involved in having a mom with a dirty mouth. Now, having a foul-mouthed Grandma around has actually forced the family to think creatively about how to frame the curse education curriculum, which brings us to an important point: There are ways to discourage cursing without making it “bad” or wrong.

It turns out that kids can learn that some words are for grown-ups, and are only acceptable in some contexts (i.e., coming out of Grandma’s mouth). To continue the above example, the grandchild in question is now more likely to scold his parents on their verbal indiscretions than to make one of his own. He did go through a brief phase of experimentation, but it faded fast. Of course, all kids are different, so it’s hard to know how yours might respond. And there is a difference between a grandmother cursing and a mother.

For one thing, young kids are more likely to imitate their parents. If you feel okay about your kid screaming out “oh for f*ck’s sake” when he spills his juice box at school, then keep on keepin’ on. You can count on the teachers to tell him it’s not appropriate, and you can then explain to him that some words are better left at home. Also, that swear words are different depending on how they are used. An outcry of frustration or pain, i.e., “oh, sh*t!” is quite different than name calling, i.e., “you little sh*t!”

You might want to try to edit your usage so that you’re not passing on anything that could be easily recycled into cruel behavior. Some parents who know that swearing will be a part of their lives to some extent tell their kids to “let out all their swear words” at an appropriate place and time. A kid can go in his room, for example, and let out all he has in him. If you give him some place for them, you’re not contradicting yourself.

While you’re deciding what you want to do about your swearing, you might want to think about what it means to you, and whether you want to keep carrying that meaning along. If you stop needing cursing, it doesn’t make you a kid again. It makes you an adult who’s able to make choices for her new, adult life rather than living in rebellion against a structure that no longer controls her. Which sounds a lot more empowering than any four-letter word we’ve ever heard. (Of course, that’s easier said than done, so good f*ing luck.)

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