Recently, my 5-year-old and I walked into a room full of kids playing video games at a birthday party. "You suck!" shouted one kid to another. "I'm going to kick your ass!" the kid yelled back. My son looked up at me with wide eyes -- he was shocked, and I think, a bit thrilled to see bigger kids using words that he still considers taboo.
For my part, I was glad he was shocked. It hasn't been easy keeping swearing out of my kids' lives.
For one thing, my husband and I can let a few strong words fly when we're frustrated or forget we're in the company of kids. And some of the TV shows my kids watch on Saturday mornings tend to pepper the action with words like "stupid" and "jerk."
As kids get older, they come across strong language in everything from YouTube videos to online comments. And lately, the amount of swearing on some of tweens' and teens' favorite TV shows seems to have bumped up a few notches. Preschool-age character Lily dropped the F-bomb (it was bleeped) on an episode of Modern Family, and The Daily Show is chock full of easily identified censored words. Parents can take advantage of these moments by explaining how shows (and other media) get attention for profanity -- a strategy that's part of selling a product.
Kids' fascination with taboo words isn't new, of course. Around the age of 5 or 6, most kids get a big thrill out of potty language (hello, Captain Underpants!) or any word that gets a rise out of parents. This age is a great time to help kids understand that there are places where certain language is OK (like in silly books) but not in others (like at the dinner table).
What kids intuitively understand is that words are powerful, and certain words make a big impact. My son certainly felt the impact of the language that the birthday party gamers were using. Explaining to him why the kids were using those words -- to shock, to feel older, to get attention -- took a bit more time.
5 Ways to Talk to Kids About Swearing -- and Why
Think time and place. What might be no big deal at your house could be offensive at your best friend's place. Remind kids to keep their audience in mind when they're speaking. The language you use when texting your best buddy can be a bit looser than the words you use in a classroom or when speaking to Grandma on Skype.
Expand your own vocab. You can almost always find a substitute for a curse word. Encourage kids to check out a thesaurus and find some creative alternatives to common curses or different ways to describe the feeling that's making them want to curse. (My son is saying "peanut butter" instead of "dummy." I tend to use "fig" a lot when I'm frustrated.)
Words can hurt. Being called a name like "bitch" or "jerk" can sting. And just like it's not OK to hit someone or bully them, it's not OK to curse at someone to hurt them. Point out when TV characters call each other names, and ask kids how they could have handled the situation differently.
Language reflects on you. Maybe some of your kids' friends think cursing makes you cool, but the reality is that someone who curses a lot tends to look immature and not at all classy. Remind kids to keep that in mind, especially when they're sending their language out into the world on social networks, online communities, etc.
Limit exposure. Check out the "language" sections of our media reviews to help select TV shows, movies, games, etc. that keep the language within your comfort level. Find out how to turn off comments or access to chat rooms if kids are seeing inappropriate language on the web. (Learn more about handling swearing.)