Swearing is everywhere in our culture. But as parents, you get to decide the culture of your home, and I recommend to all parents to establish a culture of respect and no swearing.
Establish this culture for the sake of a peaceful and respectful home. But also realize that children who know how to act respectfully and speak respectfully are better equipped to deal with the adult world than those who prefer to sound like thugs.
And make sure you understand the difference between swearing and verbal abuse. More about that below.
The dialog below plays out in countless homes each night—we know because we hear from these parents all the time:
Parent: “Why didn’t you do your homework?”
Child: “I hate f—— school. I hate my f—— teacher.”
Parent: “Don’t talk to me like that!”
Child: “Why not? You swear, too.”
When this happens, you need to stop the show. In other words, end the conversation immediately. Your child is attempting to drag you into a fight—a power struggle—instead of doing his homework. Don’t get dragged into the power struggle. Instead, ignore the invitation to argue and just say:
“We’re not talking about me. Why didn’t you do your homework? That’s my question. And you’re not going to use your cell phone until your homework is done.”
Then turn around and walk away. Don’t debate it. Don’t argue.
If your child says “I don’t care,” you can say:
“OK. If you don’t care, that’s all right. But you’re not using your cell until you get your homework done.”
Don’t argue further. Later, when your child calms down, give them a consequence for swearing.
Related content: How to Give Kids Consequences That Work
I believe that families should have clear rules about swearing. There shouldn’t be any discussion about it when it happens. And the kids need to know the rules.
Often kids swear because they’re frustrated or angry about being asked to do something that’s hard for them or that they find boring. Or maybe they’d rather be playing video games or hanging out with their friends.
Swearing is their immature and ineffective way of dealing with frustration. In these instances, when things calm down, kids need to be taught that swearing doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, it adds to the problem. When they swear, they still have their original problem, but now they’ve got an extra consequence to deal with.
Keep in mind there’s a big difference between kids cursing in general or cursing at you or another family member. Kids need to know the difference and understand that cursing at someone is verbal abuse and will be dealt with much more harshly.
Parents need to establish a zero tolerance policy for verbal abuse in the home. Verbal abuse is differentiated from cursing because it is an attack on a person. Cursing is using an expletive when describing a situation or their own frustration.
So in the example above, the child is cursing: “I hate my f—— teacher.”
If the child had said, “F— you, Mom, it’s none of your business,” that’s verbal abuse.
And there’s no excuse for abuse of any kind. When kids curse at their parents and siblings and call them names using highly offensive terms, it’s a form of abuse. And it is more than just obnoxious, it’s damaging.
This behavior needs to be dealt with very strongly. If your child is grounded for 24 hours as part of the consequence and he happens to be involved in sports, make him miss his practice or even his game as part of the consequence of his actions. Don’t let anybody manipulate you by saying they “need to be there.”
The most important thing here is that kids understand that there’s no excuse for abuse. I promise you as a parent, missing one game is not the end of the world. Learning respect, protecting your other children, is more important than a practice or a game.
And if your child is not involved in sports, then have him lose his electronics. You can say:
“You can’t have your phone back until you don’t call your sister those names for 24 hours.”
If your child curses his sister again six hours later, it becomes 48 hours without the phone. And he has to go to his room and write a letter of apology to make amends. When I say a letter, I mean a brief paragraph. And the letter should say this:
“This is what I’ll do differently the next time I want to call you a name.”
It should include an apology, but also, more importantly, he should make a commitment not to do it again.
I’ll say the obvious: don’t curse in front of your children if you expect your children not to curse in front of you. One thing we see very early on is that kids mimic parents by saying words they don’t understand. In that case, the best thing a parent can do with their younger children is calmly correct them. Teach them that what they’ve said is a bad word. You can say:
“It’s a bad word because people don’t like that word.”
If your child says, “But you use that word,” you can say:
“You tell me ‘no’ when I say it. Tell Mommy, too. Remind me that it’s a bad word.”
And when they remind you, say you’re sorry and thank them for reminding you.
For children who are older, you can establish a “cursing jar.” If anyone in your family curses, they have to put a dollar into the jar. If money isn’t readily available, a checkmark can go next to your child’s name, and every check might equal 10 minutes of an extra task or chore.
Doing their regular chores shouldn’t be a consequence. The consequence should be extra things to do. Look at it this way: if you make your child do the dishes because he swore, and then you ask him to do them again the next night, he’s going to ask: “Why? I didn’t do anything wrong.”
He’ll feel like he’s being punished when all you want is for him to do his normal chores around the house. So it’s an extra chore you want to add on for swearing. I think the sooner you give them the consequence after they’ve cursed the better.
It’s also very effective to have an age-appropriate schedule and structure at night that lists how much time your kids can spend on video games, the computer, and other electronics. If your child completes his homework then he can have an hour of screen time. But if he swears, the extra chore you give him is done during the video game hour and he loses part or all of that time. The key here is that the extra chore comes out of his free time, not his homework time.
This system should be in place ahead of time so that when your child calms down and wants her phone back, you can say:
“You know the consequences for cursing and name-calling.”
Some kids swear under their breath. But let’s face it, even if it’s under their breath, it’s the same thing, and you should give your child consequences for it.
They may say, “I didn’t say anything. That’s not fair!” You can come back with:
“I’m sorry, but that’s what I heard you say. In the future, speak more loudly, or there will be consequences.”
In other words, don’t let muttering curse words under his breath become a way for him to manipulate you so that he doesn’t have to develop self-control.
Parents have to work very diligently on watching their language and being role models for their children. If parents are not the role model, then our culture will be. And too much of our culture glamorizes swearing and disrespect.
Related content: 5 Ways to Stop a Screaming Match with Your Child or Teen
James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.