How do we handle a swearing kid?
June 14, 2021 7:29 PM   Subscribe

Our kid is 8 and plays with a 7 year old neighbor who swears. A lot. How should we approach the mom?

I had to send them home the other day because I overheard them calling me a "dumb ass bitch" to my kid. The mom made them come over and apologize, but it was weird - they apologized for "not listening" to me.

And then other day my kid came in and said "neighbor kid said the B word and the A word and Mother F-word and called me a dick which isn't even a word!"

How do we approach the mom (there is only one parent) without her getting defensive? We know the mom fairly well, but she definitely tunes out the kids when they're playing together outside. So it often feels like we hear everything that goes on and she hears... nothing. We also hear her yell and swear at her own kids, so know that's partly how they know how to talk this way. It sometimes seems like she thinks we're being uptight because we care about this. I'm also getting mad about having to police her kid's language constantly or send them home.

We live super close so it's really hard to just not hang out at all or even take some space without being pretty hardcore about ignoring each other, but I don't want my kid talking this way at 8 or being called a motherf*cker by his friend.
posted by jdl to Human Relations (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If it were me, I'd pick my battles wisely here. It's unlikely that you'll be able to get the kid to stop swearing entirely; this is the sort of thing that is really hard to stop even if you genuinely want to (ask me how I know) and I doubt either the kid and the mom genuinely want to.

But I suspect that you can get a lot of the way to where you want to be if you do the following:

1. Concentrate on the content of what you find objectionable, rather than the form. I'd be bothered by the kid being mean to mine even if they managed to do so without swearing it all. So if that's more the problem, you can set boundaries like "we are kind to each other even when we're upset" if you overhear them, and talk to your kid about how to respond if the other one is being mean, and let them know they don't have to put up with it (but also if they aren't bothered, don't insist that they have to be - when I was a kid I had a few friends who I bonded with by insulting each other, and I would have been distressed to be made to stop it).

2. Make it clear to your kid that different families have different rules and even if the other one swears all of the time, you don't want yours to, and why. And talk about how there's a time and a place for everything, etc. This is what I do with my kids and it seems to work pretty well.

Sorry I'm not answering your question about how to talk to the mom but I very, very much doubt you'll accomplish anything other than possibly alienating her.
posted by sir jective at 7:38 PM on June 14 [37 favorites]

People have different boundaries on what they deem acceptable language, and language is changing all the time. People use language differently than others do. You don't get to impose your values around language on other people.

You can draw a boundary around your kid, and a boundary around what the neighbor kid does in your presence or on your property, but approaching the parent is a one way trip towards alienation, and probably costing your kid a friend.

I've had to deal with the same thing; the neighbor kids aren't allowed to swear around us. The neighbor kids are aware of this. We only enforce this when swearing happens at other people. If a kid says fuck, if they fall, they say fuck. I do the same thing. If they swear at a kid they have to apologize...and that usually only happens once or twice because of embarrassment.

Teaching your kid how to code switch his language and how to be respectful of people regardless of the language they use, is more important than teaching them not to swear.
posted by furnace.heart at 8:40 PM on June 14 [48 favorites]

You can't change this woman's behavior, nor is it your place to do. But you can set whatever rules you want to set in your home. If the neighbor kid wants to come over, then they can't swear. You hear swearing, just send them home. And your kid can't go to their place if someone is going to swear at them. Everyone is allowed to have different rules and you don't have to be mean about it or justify your rules to the neighbor.

But you do need to explain the rules to your child, especially that it's not okay for people to swear at them or call them names and that you don't want to see that happening to them or will allow it to happen. Never too early to start learning how to set appropriate boundaries.
posted by brookeb at 8:50 PM on June 14 [1 favorite]

Set and enforce your home rules, kindly but firmly. Make sure your kid knows that if the other kid makes them feel bad, either with their language or their actions, they do not have to keep playing with them. But I don't see anything good coming out of approaching the other parent. You can only run your home, not theirs.

It really is perfectly ok to explain to your child that they're not going to be able to hang out with that child because that child's parent doesn't care enough about teaching them to treat other people well, and that your child should NOT be treated like that.

Don't teach your child to look at other children with behavioral issues as coming from icky gross pariah families where the parents don't care about what's right, please.
posted by praemunire at 8:53 PM on June 14 [31 favorites]

And I'm going to repeat this, one more time, in really basic terms: your child described being VERBALLY ABUSED by a BULLY, which you described as an ONGOING EVENT, and you're concerned about how you can CONTINUE THE RELATIONSHIP because it's the MOST CONVENIENT OPTION.

Maybe take a breath. Nobody seems to have been bullied here, unless the bar for bullying is a kid saying "you're a dick". Thanks for repeating it in "really basic terms" though; if there's anything better than SHOUTING it's condescending shouting.

"Hi Neighbour Mom. Neighbour Kid is swearing a lot. We've sent them home a few times, but it's continuing. They're going to get one more chance, and then they're not going to be able to come over for a while, and Our Kid won't be visiting you. Neighbour Kid needs to understand they're always welcome here, but that language isn't. Thanks for understanding."
posted by some little punk in a rocket at 8:55 PM on June 14 [24 favorites]

So my bias here is that I had a parent who encouraged me to practice swearing at home, so that that way, I'd become "good at it" once I got older. But that didn't mean I was ever allowed to be mean or disrespectful.

So yes, I agree it's best to focus less on the words themselves, and more on how they are being used. Calling you a "dumb ass bitch" is bad because it's rude and hurtful. If they regularly say mean things to your kid, well then your kid can decide to not be friends with them. You can send the kid home every time they swear - you're allowed to have house rules - but I see nothing productive coming out of approaching the mom.
posted by coffeecat at 9:03 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]

I guess this is a tricky position to be in, as a parent. But when I grew up I realised I would have been better off with no friends than with shitty friends, and I had a bunch of shitty friends (though, thankfully, some very good ones as well). This next door kid is a shitty friend and I don't believe your child is going to be missing out on anything long-term by not hanging out with them.
posted by turbid dahlia at 9:35 PM on June 14 [5 favorites]

Mod note: One deleted. Do not "shout" at and / or insult OP to make your point.
posted by taz (staff) at 10:08 PM on June 14 [6 favorites]

coffeecat: "I had a parent who encouraged me to practice swearing at home, so that that way, I'd become "good at it" once I got older.

I was grinning at I read this; it's a beautiful thing! My dad taught me a few good insults to use against a schoolyard bully but made it understood that these were for a particular purpose and not to be thrown around haphazardly.

I have a friend who I've seen teach his daughter great lessons about observation and context. E.g., look around at the restaurant; if you don't see cartoon characters and bright colours and games and lots of other kids, it's not an appropriate place to be loud.

As others have said, it's likely that the best use of your effort is helping your own child understand the situation. But I'm not a parent! I just noticed a couple good tricks.
posted by cranberrymonger at 10:18 PM on June 14 [2 favorites]

Lots of great responses above.

Consider that your kid will have to navigate a world full of folks who are different - maybe they swear more, or less, or like to sing, or are taller...this is a great opportunity to help your kid learn to assess situations, understand that differences are good, and it also gives your kid the perfect chance to practice setting and maintaining their own boundaries. Like, maybe other kid swears but your kid chooses not to.

Consider also that the other kid (and mom) might need some support and might also welcome (and need) the opportunity to be part of a community. Sure, swearing and insulting you & your kid is not generally the quickest road to building community, but maybe the other kid needs some help understanding this. Maybe other mother is doing the best she can with the tools she has; maybe she doesn't understand some of these basics.

I agree with people above that approaching the mother is probably not the best option. Maybe you can model - for both mom and kid - the kind of behaviour that you'd like to encourage.

Good luck! Can you report back??
posted by lulu68 at 10:30 PM on June 14

This child referred to you as a "dumb ass bitch"? I mean that is misogynistic and awful language. Saying fuck is one thing but where is he learning that is okay to say? I may be an outlier here but I would not socialize with a family who was okay with that. I would worry about peer influence as well as adult influences in that home.
posted by Threeve at 11:07 PM on June 14 [30 favorites]

With @Threeve. I would separate out
1) swearwords being uttered
2) as slurs against another person
3) in gendered or other structural-bias-enacting ways.
To me these invoke etiquette; morality; social justice.

If my kid were going to be around someone who would say "dumb-ass bitch", I would want them to be conscious of sexism (doable at age 8 for my kids) and able to recognize this as an instance and choose whether to say "that's sexist bullshit" or at minimum to flag it as something to discuss with you. Those would have been a lot for mine at 8, YKMV.

My house rules do include that if a child (friend or offspring) does something sexist or racist, I can deliver.A Brief Informational Talk about that. House rules.
posted by away for regrooving at 11:50 PM on June 14 [23 favorites]

Agreed with the above. There's swearing and there's calling people names, which are two different problems. Calling people names is mean - it puts them down, it makes them feel bad, it's a way of treating people badly. Using swear words isn't always necessarily a problem - but it's important to know in what context it's okay and what context it it isn't. And when calling people names, especially while using swear words, it's easy to be misogynistic or racist or otherwise use bigoted words - to use words that put people down for things that aren't even related to their behavior and that they often get discriminated against for in real life. I'd work with your kid on understanding all these nuances, and on understanding why someone like their friend might not understand them and keep hurting people without realizing it. And I think if you talk with his mom, the distinction is also with making.
posted by trig at 12:45 AM on June 15 [6 favorites]

My kid had a friend like this. I agree that you aren't going to get the mother to do anything, but you definitely have a right to set boundaries in your own home and even to tell your child he needs to come home if he's being treated that way . I think it's also important for your kid to know that you won't put up with someone calling you a dumb ass bitch or insulting him. There are behaviors that are simply unacceptable, and it's important for children to know they can set boundaries. And it's important for them to see you setting boundaries too.

In my own case, after the other kid left an extremely obscene message on our answering machine, I told my son that he was not allowed to be friends with him anymore. That is the only time I did anything like that, and I don't regret it. Years later, I idly said that I wondered what had happened to that kid. My son told me he was in jail.
posted by FencingGal at 6:19 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]

nothing to do with swearing or bullying but for what it's worth, I distinctly remember learning some key table manners from the mom across the street. For whatever reason (probably fatigue) my parents just didn't feel like dying on that particular hill, but she did, and she was otherwise nice to me, and I really liked her son ... so I adjusted, and I can only think it benefited me. It takes a village to raise a child and all that.
posted by philip-random at 7:14 AM on June 15 [3 favorites]

In a similar situation, when my son was about eight (He is soon 13 now), i found talking to the friend's mother not only useless but it back fired, she claimed it was my son teaching hers swear words.
I agree with others, that it is useful in a practical way to distinguish between general use of swear words and using them to insult.
And most important: you set the rules in your house. You cannot enforce them elsewhere.

I talked to our son, and set a rule that him using certain words or phrases in our house will be fined. The amount was a percentage of his pocket money. The price list was posted in our kitchen.
Of course i did not fine his friend, but did explain to the friend and his mother (when she asked me, not before), that my son cannot use these words in our house anymore.
This worked quite well. Swearing in our house stopped almost instantly, after a couple of weeks of "policing".
I also told my son that i would not police his language on the playground.
Also we talked about what options there are if his friend uses swear words to hurt him. Basically my son chose to only meet friend at our house, or at playground with me, and no longer at friend's house. Which was fine with me.
Once the list of banned words was up, his friend used them less and when he did it was enough to remind him of our house rule.

Btw, it turned out that the source of the foul
words was the friend's father ( a lawyer).
posted by 15L06 at 7:51 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]

One other thing... When I was little, my mom heard the next door neighbor kid using swear words when we were playing together. She decided immediately that that meant the nextdoor neighbors were the wrong sort of people (in fairness this was the 70s when attitudes towards swearing were far more ridgid). She told me I was not allowed to play with the neighbor kid any more, effective immediately. What she didn't bother to do was go over and speak to the neighbor about this. I was left to break the news to the neighbor kid. Later his mom asked me about it and got angry with me when I told her what my mother had said. I was little, it was awful and somewhat frightening and not even something I wanted. I missed my friend.

Don't make your kid the rule enforcer here. Don't stick them in the middle of this without your support and guidence. If you decide your kid can't play at the other kids house, you be the one to tell other kid and other kid's mom.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 8:32 AM on June 15 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you all so much for you advice. It's really very helpful and it sounds like approaching the mom will probably be useless. And this is a good moment for our kid to learn about boundaries, etc.

I honestly do not think my kid is being bullied (I read that deleted shouty post before it was deleted!), believe me, he can hold his own!

But yes @Threeve -- you got at what was bothering me. "Dumb ass bitch" is different than saying "fuck" when you fall down. Honestly that wouldn't bother me so much - it's the slur-ish nature of that and being able to talk like that in first grade that bothers me. So yes @awayforregrooving what you said is also so helpful too.

We will continue to send them home if it is egregious and I will just mention it to the mom--that over here, if I hear it, they'll be coming home. No judgement on her. It's one of the parent things I'm still not super used to - policing other people's kids to some degree.
posted by jdl at 9:00 AM on June 15 [1 favorite]

If the neighbor kid is being raised in the kind of situation that normalizes him calling grown women "dumb-ass bitch" then honestly, I would question the general way he is treated by his mom, how he is being parented, and by extension how your child would be treated or what he might experience while spending time in that home.

I would be reluctant to let my child be in that kind of an environment ... who knows what else is allowed or goes unchecked if it's the kind of home where gender-based disrespect for adults is a regular thing?

Maybe consider that the boys only play together at your house? That also gives you more opportunity to enforce the "house rules" of no swears.
posted by mccxxiii at 10:25 AM on June 15 [4 favorites]

If the neighbor kid is being raised in the kind of situation that normalizes him calling grown women "dumb-ass bitch" then honestly, I would question the general way he is treated by his mom, how he is being parented,

Honestly, I would worry about what kind of men are around the house. An eight-year-old is parroting language he doesn't understand with a viciousness he doesn't feel, but that's language he's more likely (though not certain) to have picked up from a man than from a woman. But the kid can benefit from having the problems with that kind of language unpacked at an age-appropriate level, and the friend can benefit from having it patiently de-normalized.
posted by praemunire at 10:57 AM on June 15 [8 favorites]

Ditto to worrying about the environment in that home.

The kid probably just needs some gentle correction on manners and house rules. Since you don't really know the mom there's no way to say anything one way or another about her, the family's living situation, etc and I'm not going to. But my parents weren't OK with me staying in an environment where those kinds of insults were used, and I wouldn't be OK with someone I was responsible for doing so either. We had a few incidents when I was a kid that were embarrassing at the time, but great practice in recognizing when I wasn't happy or emotionally safe and getting out of those situations in hindsight.
posted by Ahniya at 2:39 PM on June 15 [1 favorite]

I don't want my kid talking this way at 8 or being called a motherf*cker by his friend.

I recently heard someone talking about how they approach swearing with their kids, and I really like it. Basically, their message was: "You need to learn and practice a bunch of social skills before you can swear." Within this framework, the words themselves aren't scary or evil, and there will come a time when it's up to you to pick if/when you use them, but not just yet. It also makes room for an older kid/teen to have more leeway than a younger kid when it comes to swearing. Kids need grownups' guidance in a lot of social situations because they're learning how to be social people. Swearing can hurt others, damage our relationships, cause problems, or even put us in danger if we do it without having the social skills to understand why we're using certain words, what they mean, how other people may react to them, and what to do if/when we cross a line. It can be hard to know our own limits, too, when it comes to swearing (e.g., some people are comfortable with friends calling them "bitch" in a joking way, others aren't) and it's good to think that stuff through before we pepper our conversations with language that might give others the impression we're comfortable with something we're not.
posted by theotherdurassister at 2:56 PM on June 15 [3 favorites]

"With great swearing comes great responsibility."
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:08 PM on June 15 [2 favorites]

"You need to learn and practice a bunch of social skills before you can swear."

I like this. I'm reminded of advice I was given about swearing in second languages: don't, is the tldr. Don't swear based just on knowing what the words mean. Swear only if you have the cultural competence to know how different obscenities make different people feel. (In public. A private friends group who are willing to be your safety net and tally how many times you would have been punched is different.)
posted by away for regrooving at 11:34 PM on June 15

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