Swearing and bad words

Dear Kerry,
My 7-year-old has always been a good kid, but now he is coming home with lots of bad language he has learned from other kids at school. He’s calling his brother “stupid” and “dork” and worse. Sometimes he swears or uses dirty words. I tell him these aren’t nice and I want him to stop, but sometimes that makes it worse. My mother-in-law told me to wash his mouth out with soap, but that seems drastic. Any advice?
JC, Saline

Dear JC,
It sounds pretty hard to hear your nice kid being nasty and foul-mouthed. Washing his mouth out with soap would probably work, as many drastic measures do, since it is almost always possible to intimidate a child. But discipline that was considered acceptable in past generations is often considered abusive nowadays, when we have more understanding of the negative impact of punitive methods on children. And he wouldn’t learn from the experience, except to feel forced to submit to rules from the outside. I think you would rather have him successfully apply good values from inside.

That means thinking through what kind of peer pressure he is feeling. This is an opportunity to teach important life lessons. If he can learn to stay true to his own values and resist the pressure to be cool by doing mean things, he will carry strength of character into the teenage years, when he will need it even more to deal with influences and situations that can actually be dangerous.

Since he’s 7, I figure he’s in first or maybe second grade, getting used to the demands of school and to life on the playground with large groups of children. That can feel overwhelming at times, making a young child reach for shortcuts to being seen as cool or powerful. He is also seeing and hearing many new things and many different patterns of relating to others. How can he make friends and be admired by the other kids? What helps a child know how to choose among the many possibilities he is now exposed to? How can he decide what his response should be?

Rather than resort to drastic measures, a first approach from parents can define the importance of context, learning what is appropriate where: “You and the other kids may talk that way on the playground, but no one talks that way in our house.” A parent might have a playful conversation, practicing what is okay where: “Let’s see, how about a joke about a dog barfing? Should I talk about that at Thanksgiving dinner?” Or “I think we know how grandma would feel if we used bad language at her house.” A colleague made another good suggestion on his parenting site, recommending looking up “bad words” in the dictionary and thinking together about their meaning, derivations and usage (http://us2.campaign-archive1.com/?u=1ef379bd7e51cd1b32706a23a&id=c0918e683a&e=b6723b329d).

Parents can convey their understanding that boys and girls at this age enjoy talking about things that are gross, or experimenting with saying shocking words out loud – it doesn’t have to be turned into a moral issue. Instead make it an exercise in differentiating contexts, a piece of necessary social learning which exercises the emotional muscles of restraint and judgment.

At home, parents can make sure always to model kind attitudes and respectful speech, and to minimize teasing and sarcasm. Setting a good example is a powerful influence, but children also need us to express our values explicitly. You can notice when your son says something nice or does something considerate, labeling his positive behavior so that he has words to hold in his mind as he makes judgments about his own behavior. “Did you know that the coolest kids when I went to school were the ones who did what you just did? They had the muscle to resist calling names back when they were teased. When your brother tricked you, it took strength to ignore it.”

Then you can point out that he will have to practice, to build up his strength to hold back the mean words. Every time he stops himself, he will get stronger, and soon the other kids will see how nice he is to everyone. Then they will want to be friends with him. In this you are enlisting the positive power of peer pressure, the good group conscience that parents and teachers can support as part of a school climate of consideration.

You can let your son know that you will help him remember that he knows the right way to treat others. No matter what people do in other families, you can make it clear that no one is allowed to speak demeaningly to anyone in your house. “When you call names, it means you have forgotten to use your emotional muscles to find a better way to deal with the problem. I’ll help you remember that you have other ways to stand up to the situation and solve the problem.”

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One Response to Swearing and bad words

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