What should I tell my kid about swearing?
March 15, 2015 7:41 AM   Subscribe

I have an 8-year old who knows all the good swear words and understands on some level that it's not appropriate for him to use them most of the time. I'm struggling to give him some principled guidelines for using swear words.

So far, all I've come up with is that these words can make people feel like you are angry or disrespecting them, and that it's disrespectful to say these words in front of grown-ups or to direct them at anyone. But that doesn't seem like enough.

I feel like in some situations it's OK to curse when just friends are around, but at the same time don't want to encourage him to get used to talking like this normally or have him be the kid who introduces his friend to swear words. And I also have a vague sense that the older he gets, the more acceptable it is to use these words casually, but when he asked why, I couldn't really say. He also asked why it's disrespectful to use these words in front of grown-ups but not necessarily other kids, and I couldn't give a good answer to that either.

So, what principled explanation can I give him about when and in what contexts it's OK and not OK to swear? He's only 8, but capable of a lot of nuance.
posted by chickenmagazine to Human Relations (29 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Our rules around swearing are:
- no calling someone a swear word
- no swearing around people unless you know they're okay with it

..and that's it. I mean, that's basically the same rule I follow as an adult.

We've explained that some people are totally okay with swear words, some people are totally not okay with them, and that it's important to know your audience, so to speak. If your son is pretty good at picking up on nuances, he'll figure out pretty quickly when it is, and isn't, okay to let an f-bomb fly.
posted by VioletU at 7:56 AM on March 15, 2015 [32 favorites]

Best answer: I view swearing as being on the general spectrum of "friendly" aggressive behaviors-- like playful roughhousing, talking loudly, using intense sarcasm, etc. It's unilaterally escalating the emotional tone of a conversation. Imho the casual- or friendly-aggression framework covers most of the ambiguous situations you listed:

-- With adults, it's not respectful to behave in bumptious, aggressive ways.

-- With peers, this becomes increasingly OK as kids age into the maturity level where they'd be able to set their own comfort levels and enforce their own boundaries about aggression. No 8-year-old should be imposing roughhousing on another 8-year-old, because the other kid might not be able to articulate that they don't like it/ might not feel safe defending themselves. By the time you're 14 or so, the other person can pretty much be trusted to say, "Cut it out!" or "Geez, talk softer, you're getting on my nerves!" if they don't like that kind of behavior.

-- With younger children or social inferiors, it's never OK to use casual aggression, because they may not be able to defend themselves or set boundaries.

Rule of thumb: Would it be OK to punch this person on the shoulder in a friendly way, if you felt like it? No? Then also don't swear.
posted by Bardolph at 8:06 AM on March 15, 2015 [13 favorites]

have him be the kid who introduces his friend to swear words.

Well, if it's not him, it'll be another kid. Kids pretty much learn them from other kids, their parents, or random strangers cussing on the street.

And I also have a vague sense that the older he gets, the more acceptable it is to use these words casually, but when he asked why, I couldn't really say. He also asked why it's disrespectful to use these words in front of grown-ups but not necessarily other kids, and I couldn't give a good answer to that either.

Ah, good point. The one thing I might be worried about at his age would be if some other kid "tattles" to his mommy that your kid swears, so there's one good reason to watch it. Or if adults overheard their conversation and flip out.

It's more acceptable for adults because the older you get, the less someone has power over you to yell at you not to swear, essentially. You can't ground a 25-year-old for saying fuck. However, they can probably be canned at work for it still.

I recall some friends of mine's rule about swearing was "not outside of our house," which I think is pretty practical under the circumstances. The goal is to not get caught swearing, essentially, by those who will flip out. And at age 8, a lot of people overhearing will flip out because he's still supposed to be "young and innocent" and not drop f-bombs.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:20 AM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Tell him swearing is like a superpower, and if he uses it too much he loses it. If he never swears, then he will have the reputation of never swearing. Then if there is ever a situation where swearing is appropriate (ie, get your fucking hands off of him), the words will have much more of an impact than they would coming from someone else. People who know him would know it's a really big thing if it got him to swear.
posted by Sophont at 8:27 AM on March 15, 2015 [36 favorites]

You might point out that swearing can become a lazy habit and a way to avoid learning to express oneself well and say that you'd like him to concentrate on learning to use language well and fluently rather than just falling back on obscenities whenever he can't think of better and more effective words to use.
posted by orange swan at 8:36 AM on March 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

My parents just told me that didn't really care whether I cursed, but that some people get offended by it, so that I shouldn't do it in front of most adults. That worked for me.

Like anything else, if something is forbidden completely, it becomes more attractive. I also think kids learn mostly by example. Cursing can be rebellious when younger, but as adults most people recognize the consequences of it, and can decide for themselves when and if to curse.
posted by bearette at 8:37 AM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Growing up we had "family words" and "public words". It was made clear to me over and over again that we didn't swear in front of non-family members or people that were very close. Both of my parents cussed like sailors but it was only in private or in extreme situations. In fact, I only ever heard my mother swear at someone once and I don't recall ever hearing my dad do the same. Machinery, animals, people in other cars, the vague "others" of the world, they could be sweared at as long no one outside the family could hear. But no cussing at people or casually dropping "family words" in public conversations.

The only slip up I had was when I called an adult friend of the family a peckerhead. I didn't realize it was actually a bad word and thought it meant he was annoying like Woody Woodpecker. My dad cut that word from his vocabulary for a while. And I always remembered that it was a bad word.

The best way to make it clear is to model it.
posted by teleri025 at 8:47 AM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Look, you didn't make the rules of society. To a large extent, you're stuck with them. The reality is that if he freely swears in class, he'll go to detention. And if he grows up having no sense of boundaries about swearing, he could swear in a job interview and miss out on a job. So refraining from swearing is a basic part of learning how to live in society — whether or not either of you thinks that makes complete sense. That's just how it goes. And as the parent, you're responsible for raising him to learn how to live in society and respect other people's boundaries. So it would make sense for you to draw a clear line, e.g. no swearing at home or around your teachers or parents. In fact, you could look at the somewhat arbitrary nature of this rule as a positive thing: you need to be able to discipline yourself to follow certain rules that don't seem to make complete sense to you, simply because they're the rules.
posted by John Cohen at 9:03 AM on March 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I had a rule for my kid, where I didn't know or care about swearing as long as I didn't have to know or care. He knew what situations were inappropriate for swearing. Not in front of me or his granny, not at school or around most adults, things like that. We could both swear like sailors, but we had to be enough in control of it that we didn't do it in front of each other, and that I never got a call about it. The main reason I put myself off limits was as a check, and so that he'd have practice suppressing it.

I don't remember having to explain it too much, but the gist was just that there is a time and place for that sort of thing, and that some people are really bothered by it, so you don't go around swearing around people unless you are pretty sure they're OK with it. (Which he knew because Granny was one of those people who was bothered. I think she tended to picture things literally, which is often pretty gross, when you think about it.)
posted by ernielundquist at 9:07 AM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Kids don't need any encouragement to swear around their friends. Discourage him from using the words at all. Tell him that swear words shrink your vocabulary and make you sound like an angry idiot. Ask him if he wants to sound like an angry idiot.
posted by myselfasme at 9:12 AM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Tell him that swear words shrink your vocabulary and make you sound like an angry idiot. Ask him if he wants to sound like an angry idiot.

Yeah, the world is full of angry swearing idiots. But many, many intelligent people swear as well. Most thinking adults don't assume that someone is an idiot just based on their use of 'bad' words.

Don't lie to your kids. It sets them up for thinking less of you and for what you have to say when they figure out the truth.
posted by marsha56 at 9:31 AM on March 15, 2015 [18 favorites]

Like many things in life, it's all about time and place. Like belching out loud in a fancy restaurant or wearing a bathing suit to the office. It's just not done by people who think about their surroundings. And I wouldn't say that it's okay to do it around kids but not adults. There are lots of kids who wouldn't feel comfortable hanging out with someone who uses coarse language and lots of adults who wouldn't care at all. But you don't want to make anyone feel uncomfortable around you so err on the side of more polite language. Time and place.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 9:34 AM on March 15, 2015

Hitting your thumb with the hammer-reason to swear.

My partner and his brothers use the word fuck very very casually in conversations. I warned him once that he was going to embarrass himself inadvertantly, and he laughed, saying he was an adult and that would never happen. It happened. And I work in a public library, and I can't tell you how many times I have asked adults to moderate their language, and they were all surprised, because they have no concept of how much they swear. Start paying attention to random conversations when you and your son are out together. I think you will have ample opportunity to point out the inappropriate use of swearing, and the total lack of vocabulary skills that pass for communication in our lives. Save swearing for major events:

HOLY FUCK, that's an alien spaceship!!
posted by LaBellaStella at 10:05 AM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

I feel like swearing is one of those things that has natural consequences that your child will come to know very quickly. I think you can use the example that there is formal and informal language, and that public places, school, religious situations and social situations with a lot of adults are generally places where we use formal language, hanging out with friends and family are times we use informal language. I would also explain that people judge other people on a variety of things, and while many people swear, many people find it very offensive (case in point- This American Life Podcast has a disclaimer at the beginning of it now saying that swears are not beeped, but people can listen on the website if they prefer not hearing swears).

I had a potty mouth growing up, and my mom was always so mortified- she still gasps when I swear. I still get a thrill swearing in front of her, and I still like to use swears as emphasis when I am with friends. I think as a previous poster mentioned, trying to make kids not do something often makes them want to do it more. However, I work in a school, and I know that I can never,ever swear there, and I don't swear in any formal circumstances. Most of us learn this pretty quickly when we get in trouble for doing it when we aren't supposed to, even if it does offer us a thrill. I have been much more casual with my children then my mother ever was with me, and they do swear- they are in their teens now, and they know when to turn it off.
posted by momochan at 10:05 AM on March 15, 2015

My six year old is experimenting with swearing, though I don't think she really gets distinctions between "dagnabit" and "dammit" and "phooey" and "fuck" and anything else you might say when surprised or angry. So far, I've just mildly pointed out, "hey, that's a word that you shouldn't use in school, because it might upset your teacher." I mostly switched to not-swear-words when my kids learned to talk, and I think it's hilarious that the universe has taken my years and years of "dagnabit frickety frack" and graced me with a kid who wanders around saying "dammit!" And also "so, what's 'fuck' mean, mama? Oh. Right. Uh, what's sex, again? I can't remember." Especially when grocery shopping or other public venue.
posted by instamatic at 10:16 AM on March 15, 2015

I think it sort of depends on what your own practice is. If you swear freely, then what you want to teach your kid is that it's fine to swear in the house but not to swear at school. There doesn't have to be a good reason! The world is full of arbitrary distinctions that depend on context, and an 8-year-old is already pretty attuned to this. (e.g. he understands that it's OK for certain parts of his body to be visible at home which would not be OK at school, and he doesn't need there to be a principle backing this up.)

As for us, I'm fine with my 9-year-old knowing what those words are (as if I had a choice) but I don't really want him swearing either at school or at home. But of course it's not like I never ever swear. So I taught him that swearing can be a good way to let your feelings out when you feel really mad, but it doesn't work as well if you use those words all the time. Then we watched a YouTube video of a relief pitcher who'd just given up a game-winning home run going back to the dugout at punching the concrete wall, breaking his pitching hand and ending his season. I told him, see? That guy should have just said a lot of swear words instead of punching the wall. That's when you do it.
posted by escabeche at 10:31 AM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

This is a super interesting question! I don't know if my parents did this consciously, but they taught me to only swear if it wouldn't make someone else in the conversation uncomfortable. These days I do swear quite a bit, but only around certain people and only in certain contexts. I've never had a hard time turning off my swearing when I'm not in the right context for it.

My folks never reprimanded me for swearing (that I remember), and they never fell into the trap of informing me that swearing was "unladylike" (yuck!). They did a lot of leading by example, instead, which I think is way more effective than giving instructions to children. It's sort of funny, because my mom is a bit of a swearer (though our "favorites" aren't the same) and I can't remember her cursing even once before I was 18; my dad, on the other hand, doesn't like to swear and I don't think I've ever even heard him say "damn."

One thing they did teach me was that some behaviors, including swearing in inappropriate situations, was tacky and classless. That was pretty effective for me, but YMMV - it's hard to do without encouraging snobbiness.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 10:38 AM on March 15, 2015

I would tell him that language that refers offensively to women's anatomy, that polices women's sexual behavior, that reinforces gender roles, or that reinforces power structures in general is never, ever okay to use, even though there are times and places for other kinds of swearing.
posted by alphanerd at 10:42 AM on March 15, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: You might also explain that swearing means different things to different people: for example, a lot of my generation primarily use swear words for emotionally neutral emphasis or mock-anger, but a lot of my parents' generation swear to indicate genuine anger, so there can be a lot of pretty dramatic miscommunication there.
posted by you're a kitty! at 11:04 AM on March 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

So, a teacher who's not a parent here. I generally try to frame it as a mutual respect/professionalism thing - for example, I would be fired for using that language in front of you, because the norms we have for the classroom and many workplaces is that we don't use profanity. By framing it as part of a mutual respect thing, and letting them know that when they use profanity in front of me it feels like a lack of respect (even if it's unintentional), they tend to take it in good faith.

(Though, to clarify: if a kid says profanity out of frustration, I probably will say "Dude/dudette, language!" and that be that. If a kid uses profanity in a way to hurt someone else/undermine the instruction in the classroom, they immediately go to the office. That's my rule, at least.)
posted by superlibby at 11:38 AM on March 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

Our rules for swearing are "You get to unlock those words when you are old enough to drive."
posted by A Terrible Llama at 12:26 PM on March 15, 2015

I'd caution him about overusing swear words. Explain to him how using a cuss word like the "f" word in every sentence, or ten times in five minutes, sounds ridiculous to your audience and makes a person sound foolish. Tell him that a swear word has power, but only if it's used rarely and with feeling. I'd also tell him that cussing can become such an ingrained habit that it's tough to break and things like job interviews or the jobs themselves can be lost as a result of a few slipped through "f" words; even if you're only working at McD's and you drop a soda on the floor and yell "F***!!" - that's enough to get you into big trouble and it happened just because you're so used to using the word when you're not at work, so it's a good idea to avoid the habit in the first place and just use swear words when absolutely nothing else will do.

I did a lot of swearing when I was raising my daughter, though not the "f" word because it was considered too raw at that point so many years ago, but when my daughter started swearing at about the same age as your son, I had that light-bulb moment when I realized her speech was what she heard at home all the time. Of course, she heard it at school and with her friends, too, but still I was contributing to her education in a way I wasn't proud of. It didn't help much when I quit - she was on a roll - but eventually we both grew out of it.

Just my thoughts.
posted by aryma at 12:32 PM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think it might be worth trying to find out whether he's dealing with a greater than average predisposition to swear because of something like Tourette's.

Which has, by the way, been associated by some pretty good studies with higher incidence of certain allergies, and in many anecdotes with food allergies and sensitivities (see also the comments in the first link).
posted by jamjam at 2:55 PM on March 15, 2015

And I also have a vague sense that the older he gets, the more acceptable it is to use these words casually, but when he asked why, I couldn't really say. He also asked why it's disrespectful to use these words in front of grown-ups but not necessarily other kids, and I couldn't give a good answer to that either.

I would tell him that it is more acceptable when he gets older because of two things: First, an adult brain is capable of forms of logic that an 8-year-old's brain is not capable of. So when he is older, he will be more qualified for making good judgments about when, where and how to use such loaded words. Second, it's simply more socially acceptable because most grown-ups want kids to not know such things whereas adults are generally expected to know such things. So it is a little shocking when kids know and use such words, but not so much when adults know and use them.

I would tell him it is not okay to use them around other kids because it may introduce them to words that can get them in trouble, that they don't understand how to properly use.

You could talk about how words have power. They have power for both good and bad. Strong language is more powerful and, just like you need training and practice to use a gun properly, you need some training and experience to use strong language properly too.

You could broaden this discussion a bit and talk about how people get fired for saying bad things on Twitter or Facebook or in other settings. Words having power and being used for harm goes beyond just swearing. If he doesn't understand, explain that his brain has some big changes coming in the next roughly four years and if he just can't get it now, wait a bit and revisit it when he is older. Brain development takes the time it takes. You can't rush it.

My kids did not get in trouble for using swear words. I did suggest to them that it would cause unnecessary trouble for them to use such words at school because the teachers wouldn't like it. I also let them know from a very early age that talking like that was rude and they could tell ME to stop being rude to THEM (because I swear like a sailor). So this was mostly a non-issue at home because my sons spent all their time trying to clean up my foul mouth and never aspired to be so ill-mannered. They felt morally superior to me and I liked it like that. They are now adults and are perfectly capable of swearing, but mostly still have a cleaner mouth than their mother.

I think the way most adults frame this makes swear words seem like "forbidden fruit" and thus temptation and, also, an exercise of power and evidence that they are all grown up. I made sure my kids viewed swear words as a personal failing on my part, not something status-y that grown-ups did. They knew the words, but mostly saw no reason to stoop to my level. It became a game to help me clean up my mouth, and I do swear less than I used to because of their efforts. Win/win.
posted by Michele in California at 3:38 PM on March 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

I too have an eight year old boy. Rule when I got custody when he was five was "only at home." At first it was excessive and I gradually corrected it. Now he reserves it for when other words fail him and uses curse words in situations where most adults would too. Toe stubbing, pants caught in bicycle chain, breaking something, opposing traffic coming into our lane. My favorite was "WAKE UP DAD! THE MOTHERFUCKING COYOTES ARE IN THE FENCE!" Much more effective than gently shaking me.

There have been two reports of him quietly saying "damn" at school. One was when someone accidentally gave him a nosebleed and the other was during a test he did not do well on. Teachers gave him a pass both times and chuckled as they told me about it.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 2:39 AM on March 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

The angle I plan on taking with my almost-2-year-old when she's old enough to grasp this is: there are some words that are "home words." You can only use them at home.

No other context, so no bunch of fiddly details she has to worry about. This works perfectly, because:

1. It stacks with the "don't call people names" rule to prevent her from calling family members bad words
2. There's no possible way my wife and I are going to self-censor perfectly at home, so this allows us to slip up without diluting the message
3. Anyone who is visiting our house is either (a) a friend who won't be offended by the occasional curseword from a child or (b) not someone I care enough to fear judgment from

By the time she's old enough to start questioning some of the finer nuances (c.f. "Why are you swearing in traffic, dad? We're not at home!"), she'll be old enough for a real explanation of how polite society functions. (Or a hand-wave-y explanation of how our car is a de facto extension of our home)
posted by Mayor West at 5:50 AM on March 16, 2015

Best answer: This is something I thought about quite a bit when I taught myself to swear in order to fit in better in college [1]. Swearing is really complicated and will be perceived differently depending on context.

For example, social status: Swearing at equals can signal friendliness and acceptance, but swearing at superiors and inferiors is more often seen as disrespectful or aggressive. This is one facet of why swearing among his friends is more acceptable than swearing with adults.

Or, probably relevant especially for young children, worldliness: swearing can signal that the speaker is more mature, more worldly, and less innocent. Young children perceive these as desirable qualities; adults tend instead to mourn the loss of innocence.

Or, religion: most religions forbid swearing in places of worship, and some religions (or practices thereof) forbid swearing altogether. In the Abrahamic religions (well, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, not sure about Bahai'i), swearing using the name of the god is specifically the sin of blasphemy.

Swearing is actually super interesting and a topic of active research. Try googling "swearing linguistics" if you want to read more.

[1] Due to language difficulties and general introversion, I didn't really talk to other children until quite late, and the few adults I interacted with (mostly relatives and teachers) were generally careful not to swear around me.
posted by d. z. wang at 7:14 PM on March 16, 2015

For example, A Linguist Explains the Syntax of “Fuck”
posted by d. z. wang at 7:17 PM on March 16, 2015

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone!

I was trying to explain WHY swearing is perceived as disrespectful, and going down a rabbit hole of trying to explain in what contexts, and to whom, it's disrespectful, and when it's okay. Which is a very complicated question.

But I had a "aha" (or "duh") moment when I read some of these answers. If I need a rule for my kid, it doesn't matter WHY people don't like swearing, it matters THAT they don't like swearing.

I marked as best answers those answers along the lines of "If someone doesn't like it, don't do it around them, otherwise it's OK," and those that did try to explain the complexities of why swearing is perceived so differently according to context and hearer.
posted by chickenmagazine at 1:34 PM on April 14, 2015

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