Naughty Words | When your children surprise you with their vocabulary

I recently spent some time with my nieces and nephews ranging in age from 6 to 18 years which was delightful - and occasionally instructive. On one occasion I was quite shocked to hear my youngest niece address her 15 year old cousin as ‘penis breath’ which prompted the questions ‘why?’ and ‘where is she hearing that kind of talk?’. My niece is bilingual and only speaks English at home and I’m fairly sure her parents aren’t speaking to her or to each other in that way. So it begs the question what makes kids use offensive language? But that’s a question we can’t ask until we’re calm enough to do so. If you’re the parent of a child who’s just uttered an expletive that you find shocking, and in particular if its front of others, especially if its front of disapproving relatives, then the chances are your buttons have been pushed and you’re not asking sensible questions about the provenance of the utterance but have responded sharply, maybe punitively or maybe with resignation and an embarrassed shrug of the shoulders… ‘kids these days.’

Once you’ve calmed down and in the privacy of your own home the concerned parent might consider why children use such language. I think there are three reasons and the cause will determine the most effective parental response. It seems to me that kids use poor language because:

  • It is generated by a strong emotion and they need to express themselves strongly
  • They are trying to shock – whether or not they know the meaning of what they’re saying they know what the effect will be
  • They are in the habit of using such language and it means little to them; they may be in an environment where they hear language which would some would find offensive used as an everyday adverb –‘that’s f***ing brilliant’ is not used with the intention to offend.

We certainly cannot shield our children from hearing words which we might prefer not to hear coming from the mouths of babes or even older kids. They will be exposed to strong language in the school playground, in the media and on the street. Maybe they hear it from the adults on whom they model their behaviour too. This is one of those difficult areas where parents cannot avoid responsibility.  While we might accept certain language from an adult and find it offensive in a child, they will of course not make that distinction, or not without learning an early lesson in hypocrisy. “We rejoice if they say something over-free, and words which we should not tolerate from the lips even of an Alexandrian page are greeted with laughter and a kiss…They hear us use such words…every dinner party is loud with foul songs, and things are presented to their eyes of which we should blush to speak.” (Quintilian 1stcentury AD) What we can do is pass on whatever our values are about language – the appropriateness of certain words at certain times and in certain settings. Sometimes our children pick up on our values without us realising. One day when my daughter was five years old I was driving her and a friend home from a playdate when her friend said something offensive. Before I could say anything my pompous little girl had said “ours is not a rude house”. While I wouldn’t have expressed it like that I’m glad she’d got the message.

If our children’s choice of words has been dictated by strong emotion then we will teach them nothing if we do not acknowledge the strength of that feeling. “For you to talk to me/your brother like that tells me you are REALLY angry.” “The fact that you’ve chosen that word shows me you really want me to take you very seriously.” Only once the emotion has been acknowledged can we require the child to express themselves differently. This clearly requires a certain level of detachment that you won’t be able to muster in the heat of the upset so come back to it when you’re calmer.

Likewise we will be ineffective in dealing with inappropriate language if we are judgmental. It’s important that we don’t say anything that makes our children wrong even though we think the language offensive – they won’t learn while they feel judged. So don’t say “Don’t say that – that’s wrong/bad/disgusting” because, being egocentric, they will hear “YOU are wrong/bad/disgusting” and will shut down in defence or become retaliatory or resistant or otherwise stop listening.

If ‘naughty words’ are used to get attention, conventional wisdom would have it that we should ignore such language but many parents worry that this means we are condoning it. Instead of ignoring it, we shouldn’t give it a massive amount of attention as we do when we get upset but quietly take the child to one side and explain that we find such words hurtful and that they are inappropriate. If the inappropriate language continues some kind of consequence is often used. Some families use a swear box into which a coin is put when there is an ‘offence’.  

However a more positive approach is to teach your child to get attention differently. If you think that attention-seeking is the motivation, say so and be clear what behaviour will get your attention and then make sure you do give lots of attention for good behaviours. In this situation it is important not to be melodramatic but speak to the child in a calm, neutral voice. Again this may require a time-out to calm down first.

If your child is swearing or using other offensive language merely out of habit, changes to his environment will be required as well as an acknowledgment of how things have been to date and what the new rules are for everyone. Is your child being exposed to inappropriate media? Are they watching programmes with a classification beyond their age? Where do they watch TV or use the computer? If you are making changes to these habits your child may not be happy and you may meet with resistance. Empathise but be firm. Make sure your expectations are realistic and don’t expect change to be quick.

Acknowledge your child for accepting changes, for trying to control their language and for using alternative ways of expressing themselves when frustrated, thwarted or angry. My daughter’s favourite way of getting her point across without being offensive was to say “oh, rude words!”

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