Little kids love bad words. They love good words, too. They love all words. If you curse a blue streak in front of your children, chances are they'll soon be resorting to colorful language to express themselves, too. You'll need to examine your values and priorities and decide for yourself whether this is acceptable or out of bounds.
1. Swearing Versus Verbal Abuse
First of all, it's important to distinguish between simple swearing and verbal abuse. If your child spills her milk at breakfast and drops an "f-bomb," that's simple swearing. If she gets angry at you and exclaims, "F--- you, Mommy!" that's verbal abuse. The latter is quite a bit more serious. "Parents need to establish a zero tolerance policy for verbal abuse in the home," says author and behavioral therapist James Lehman, adding, "It is damaging, not just obnoxious."
2. Children Are Mimics
Young children are rapidly absorbing all the vocabulary they can -- it's their job, and it's developmentally appropriate for them to mimic everyone around them, especially adult caretakers. So if you swear in front of the kids, it's a good bet that they'll pick up that word and use it, possibly in front of Grandma or the director of your preschool.
3. Usage Versus Understanding
Just because your child uses profanity in a sentence, however, doesn't mean that he really understands what it means. Your child might simply notice that the word gets an unusual reaction and start using it more. This is similar to "potty talk," another completely normal developmental stage that just happens to coincide with when many kids learn to swear. Kids know that potty talk is shocking, and they love to explore that reaction by using potty words whenever and wherever possible. Same with swearing. This is how they learn boundaries -- by testing them.
A major issue to consider with children and profanity is the stigma attached to it. Parents won't want to bring their kids over for play dates. Schools may mark your child down as a troublemaker. Church might send her home. You might find profanity to be just a little naughty, but some words -- especially sexual terms and religious terms -- can be quite offensive to others. If you're trying to teach your child to be respectful and considerate of others, swearing might get in the way.
Maybe it's time to start the ever-popular "curse jar." Parents should toss a quarter into the jar any time someone in the house swears -- kid or adult. Teach your child to correct you when you swear by saying "Mommy, that's not a nice word" or something similar; then, pull out your wallet. Or simply explain to your child when you consider it appropriate to swear and when you don't. For example, alone with parents is OK but not when there are guests and never outside the house. You might be surprised at how fast your child picks up these distinctions -- and, with luck, adopts them without a fuss.
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