5 Ways to Talk to Your Kids About Swearing -- and Why

Sierra Filucci Executive Editor, Parenting Content | Mom of two Categories: Screen Time
Executive Editor, Parenting Content | Mom of two

Recently, my 5-year-old and I walked into a room full of kids playing video games at a birthday party. "You suck!" shouted one kid to another. "I'm going to kick your ass!" the kid yelled back. My son looked up at me with wide eyes -- he was shocked, and I think, a bit thrilled to see bigger kids using words that he still considers taboo.

For my part, I was glad he was shocked. It hasn't been easy keeping swearing out of my kids' lives.

For one thing, my husband and I can let a few strong words fly when we're frustrated or forget we're in the company of kids. And some of the TV shows my kids watch on Saturday mornings tend to pepper the action with words like "stupid" and "jerk."

As kids get older, they come across strong language in everything from YouTube videos to online comments. And lately, the amount of swearing on some of tweens' and teens' favorite TV shows seems to have bumped up a few notches. Preschool-age character Lily dropped the F-bomb (it was bleeped) on an episode of Modern Family, and The Daily Show is chock full of easily identified censored words. Parents can take advantage of these moments by explaining how shows (and other media) get attention for profanity -- a strategy that's part of selling a product.

Kids' fascination with taboo words isn't new, of course. Around the age of 5 or 6, most kids get a big thrill out of potty language (hello, Captain Underpants!) or any word that gets a rise out of parents. This age is a great time to help kids understand that there are places where certain language is OK (like in silly books) but not in others (like at the dinner table).

What kids intuitively understand is that words are powerful, and certain words make a big impact. My son certainly felt the impact of the language that the birthday party gamers were using. Explaining to him why the kids were using those words -- to shock, to feel older, to get attention -- took a bit more time.

5 Ways to Talk to Kids About Swearing -- and Why

  1. Think time and place. What might be no big deal at your house could be offensive at your best friend's place. Remind kids to keep their audience in mind when they're speaking. The language you use when texting your best buddy can be a bit looser than the words you use in a classroom or when speaking to Grandma on Skype.
  2. Expand your own vocab. You can almost always find a substitute for a curse word. Encourage kids to check out a thesaurus and find some creative alternatives to common curses or different ways to describe the feeling that's making them want to curse. (My son is saying "peanut butter" instead of "dummy." I tend to use "fig" a lot when I'm frustrated.)
  3. Words can hurt. Being called a name like "bitch" or "jerk" can sting. And just like it's not OK to hit someone or bully them, it's not OK to curse at someone to hurt them. Point out when TV characters call each other names, and ask kids how they could have handled the situation differently.
  4. Language reflects on you. Maybe some of your kids' friends think cursing makes you cool, but the reality is that someone who curses a lot tends to look immature and not at all classy. Remind kids to keep that in mind, especially when they're sending their language out into the world on social networks, online communities, etc.
  5. Limit exposure. Check out the "language" sections of our media reviews to help select TV shows, movies, games, etc. that keep the language within your comfort level. Find out how to turn off comments or access to chat rooms if kids are seeing inappropriate language on the web. (Learn more about handling swearing.)

About Sierra Filucci

Sierra has been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade, with a special interest in women's and family subjects. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley,... Read more

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Comments (47)

Educator and Parent written by donnaq

"How to Teach Your Kids to Swear," by Kim Lunansky. Psychologist approved! http://youtu.be/-g_CLUPs-w8?list=UUfNT-I0R7Vh3uuUdaJUMe5g (www.donnaink.com).
Kid, 9 years old

Ehh, I don't care about super-duper mild ones anyway. The bigger ones disturb me. ._.
Teen, 13 years old written by Justaddglitterxo

I honestly don't think that words such as "jerk" or "stupid" are swear words. I wouldn't say them to a 3 year old, but they are not swears.
Teen, 13 years old written by Justaddglitterxo

I honestly don't think that words such as "jerk" or "stupid" are swear words. I wouldn't say them to a 3 year old, but they are not swears.
Kid, 11 years old

My parents don't swear. I don't consider myself to swear. I've never said anything stronger then crap, and my parents don't really mind as long as I don't say it to often in front of my little sister. I'm exposed to a lot of media with some strong language, but it hasn't effected the way I speak. The words don't seem as strong to me after a while, but I do get a bit uncomfortable with some of the stronger ones. I think that once a kid gets to middle school, there's little sense in censoring language, because they'll hear it everywhere. Private school kids swear. Public school kids swear. I know eight year-olds who know what BS stands for. Swearing is becoming a cultural norm, which isn't a good thing, but I think that if it's controlled in the home, it won't be as common at schools and public places. I also agree that there's a time and place. Don't swear in front of little kids, don't swear in the classroom.
Kid, 11 years old

Yeah. When I was 8, I watched a whole lot of YouTube Videos with words like f**k and s**t. My mom banned YouTube forever.
Kid, 9 years old

Sierra can't go online!- Mierra Mierra Cilucci! Don't do it!- Sierra Most kids my age have the mouth of a sailor, but I'm different. I never tend to use bad words, not even little swears, like "cr*p" or "freakin''. reply Flag as inappropriate wht about hell (or is tht even a bad word)Although I hate it when children swear, I think 13 is around the age where it's OK in some situations. My teacher said to us, I don't care if you swear, just don't do it in the classroom. She was right. There is a time and place for swearing. The classroom, the workplace, church (obviously), and the dinner table are not the time or the place. It also depends on who you are with. Some people don't care how many f-bombs you drop and some people don't like the use of the phrase "holy crap". My friend and I call each other a dumb b**ch, but neither of us MEAN IT and both of us KNOW that. If you were in a verbal fight with someone, calling them a bad name would only make it worse. Also, when I'm in a bad mood, I hate my friend jokingly calling me a b**ch. One of my friends gets really offended if I say "god d*mit", so I NEVER say it around her, but if it slips out, I make sure to deliver a sincere apology. In some cases, swearing is OK. It can make a joke a lot funnier and it can defuse the anger of stubbing your toe. In conclusion, you just have to be careful with what you say and try not to offend people. reply Flag as inappropriate 5 Ways to Talk to Your Kids About Swearing -- and Why Sierra FilucciFebruary 28, 2011Categories: Cell phone parenting, Digital media and school, Healthy media habits, Social networking for kids Senior Editor, TV and DVD | Mom of two Recently, my 5-year-old and I walked into a room full of kids playing video games at a birthday party. "You suck!" shouted one kid to another. "I'm going to kick your ass!" the kid yelled back. My son looked up at me with wide eyes -- he was shocked, and I think, a bit thrilled to see bigger kids using words that he still considers taboo. For my part, I was glad he was shocked. It hasn't been easy keeping swearing out of my kids' lives. For one thing, my husband and I can let a few strong words fly when we're frustrated or forget we're in the company of kids. And some of the TV shows my kids watch on Saturday mornings tend to pepper the action with words like "stupid" and "jerk." As kids get older, they come across strong language in everything from YouTube videos to online comments. And lately, the amount of swearing on some of tweens' and teens' favorite TV shows seems to have bumped up a few notches. Preschool-age character Lily dropped the F-bomb (it was bleeped) on an episode of Modern Family, and The Daily Show is chock full of easily identified censored words. Parents can take advantage of these moments by explaining how shows (and other media) get attention for profanity -- a strategy that's part of selling a product. Kids' fascination with taboo words isn't new, of course. Around the age of 5 or 6, most kids get a big thrill out of potty language (hello, Captain Underpants!) or any word that gets a rise out of parents. This age is a great time to help kids understand that there are places where certain language is OK (like in silly books) but not in others (like at the dinner table). What kids intuitively understand is that words are powerful, and certain words make a big impact. My son certainly felt the impact of the language that the birthday party gamers were using. Explaining to him why the kids were using those words -- to shock, to feel older, to get attention -- took a bit more time. 5 Ways to Talk to Kids About Swearing -- and Why Think time and place. What might be no big deal at your house could be offensive at your best friend's place. Remind kids to keep their audience in mind when they're speaking. The language you use when texting your best buddy can be a bit looser than the words you use in a classroom or when speaking to Grandma on Skype. Expand your own vocab. You can almost always find a substitute for a curse word. Encourage kids to check out a thesaurus and find some creative alternatives to common curses or different ways to describe the feeling that's making them want to curse. (My son is saying "peanut butter" instead of "dummy." I tend to use "fig" a lot when I'm frustrated.) Words can hurt. Being called a name like "bitch" or "jerk" can sting. And just like it's not OK to hit someone or bully them, it's not OK to curse at someone to hurt them. Point out when TV characters call each other names, and ask kids how they could have handled the situation differently. Language reflects on you. Maybe some of your kids' friends think cursing makes you cool, but the reality is that someone who curses a lot tends to look immature and not at all classy. Remind kids to keep that in mind, especially when they're sending their language out into the world on social networks, online communities, etc. Limit exposure. Check out the "language" sections of our media reviews to help select TV shows, movies, games, etc. that keep the language within your comfort level. Find out how to turn off comments or access to chat rooms if kids are seeing inappropriate language on the web. (Learn more about handling swearing.) Related posts When Good Role Models Go Bad Standing Up to Cyberbullying How Video Games Helped My Kids Get Along Related tags movies, music lyrics, teachable moments, TV About Sierra Filucci Sierra has been writing and editing professionally for more than a decade, with a special interest in women's and family subjects. She has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley... Read more Add comment
Teen, 14 years old written by Rich4270

Most kids my age have the mouth of a sailor, but I'm different. I never tend to use bad words, not even little swears, like "cr*p" or "freakin''.
Teen, 13 years old written by Novalita

Although I hate it when children swear, I think 13 is around the age where it's OK in some situations. My teacher said to us, I don't care if you swear, just don't do it in the classroom. She was right. There is a time and place for swearing. The classroom, the workplace, church (obviously), and the dinner table are not the time or the place. It also depends on who you are with. Some people don't care how many f-bombs you drop and some people don't like the use of the phrase "holy crap". My friend and I call each other a dumb b**ch, but neither of us MEAN IT and both of us KNOW that. If you were in a verbal fight with someone, calling them a bad name would only make it worse. Also, when I'm in a bad mood, I hate my friend jokingly calling me a b**ch. One of my friends gets really offended if I say "god d*mit", so I NEVER say it around her, but if it slips out, I make sure to deliver a sincere apology. In some cases, swearing is OK. It can make a joke a lot funnier and it can defuse the anger of stubbing your toe. In conclusion, you just have to be careful with what you say and try not to offend people.
Teen, 15 years old written by Jessi-Siobhan

This is an interesting post, especially from my point of view, as a teenager. I think what is most important to remember that it is always relative to the situation. Being a fifteen year old, it would be perfectly acceptable for me to say sh--t if I stubbed my toe while I was with friends. It would not be acceptable however to do that in class, around younger children, in the company of adults or if I was ten, for example. I can still remember at the age of around 9 coming home from school and asking my mum what the F word was, because my friends wouldn't tell me. My mother actually did tell me, but also made sure I understood not to say it and to this day I cannot bring myself to say it, even amongst friends. It's just too strong. With swearing, one must just be aware when it's appropriate. At school, there is one girl in my year who thinks it makes her really cool that she can just casually drop c--t in the conversation every so often, but really it just makes her seem like she's trying too hard and it's a very off-putting habit. To be honest, for the most part swearing isn't nessesary. I don't swear very often, probably much less than the average teenager, even though I allowed to swear at home. Actually, now that I look at it, it may have something to do with the fact that my parents made it far less taboo and therefore less exciting. I often find myself saying shiddlesticks, for some odd reason. No idea why :D. Haha, sorry that was a bit of a ramble. I'm still a bit undecided on this post. On one hand it seems overly strict, but on the other, I thought "duh" was a bad word at age six. Hmm. I guess it depends on the child. *Sorry for any typos, I'm using a touchscreen, it's very annoying!
Teen, 13 years old written by concernedteen123

There is a song in South Park:Bigger, Longer, and Uncut-I know the song has swearing but it gives you a couple of ideas for substitute words. The song is called, "It's Easy, MMMKay'
Teen, 13 years old written by TTPKacey

Trying to shield your kid against profanity is pointless. I don't think you understand this, but by the time they are seven or eight, they're surrounded by swearing in school. Don't give me any BS "they go to a private Christian school, it doesn't go on there!". I went to one too. It went on. A lot. Now I go to a public middle school. It goes on there. Even more. Trying to shield your child against anything is pointless, because when you let them out of your sight, they'll be exposed to it. You can't protect them forever.
Teen, 13 years old written by Novalita

I mostly agree with you. Although, I think shielding them for a little while is perfectly OK. Even though swearing goes on everywhere, the least a parent can do is to not allow swearing at home. You can also talk to your kids about it. I know it goes on and TOO MUCH shielding from anything is stupid and pointless, I think a LITTLE bit of shielding is OK, but there is a difference between shielding and just talking to your kids about things. I have a friend who watches all the same shows I do and listens to the same vulgar language our friends talk with, but he never swears and never tells dirty jokes (unlike me). He is not shielded, but his parents probably talk to him a lot about stuff.
Kid, 10 years old

This is a good article my family lets me say stupid idiot or dummy but not at someone else unless im joking
Teen, 15 years old written by cobalt60

If you think words like stupid and jerk are cuss words then maybe you ought to go back to kindergarten
Kid, 10 years old

Well some parents dont want you to say stupid or jerk cause that could lead to mean words and then cussing
Teen, 13 years old written by Ambreisninja

It's time to realize that swearing is part of most tweens' and teens' vocabulary. Swearing starts in 4th grade. It increases a lot in middle school. By high school, swearing is a huge part of out vocabulary. Honestly, kids don't care if swearing isn't classy. Just realize parents, we are not angels.
Adult written by Carbonel

How did it get to be this way? That vulgar, ignorant, and just plain ugly language became "just part of every teenager's (or everyone's) vocabulary"? I think it starts with people saying, "Oh, c'mon, it's no big deal, just relax, okay?" Or perhaps they point to unkind (bigoted, hateful) language and say, "Oh, you're all uptight about vulgarity (or rudeness) but you don't stop this!" As if the solution to one bad thing was to allow *all* bad things. Either way it ends up with the public spaces becoming public sewers. I'd like to clean up the public spaces, and I expect that it begins at home. Yes, we need to prepare young people to cope with the garbage, excrement, and waste that they will find strewn everywhere around them when they leave their cleaner homes (or communities). But I hope we can do that by helping them be aware that garbage *is* garbage, and that they can be good examples by not littering, and cleaning up when they can: in language as in deeds.
Teen, 14 years old written by bigdipper67

I agree with this. My friends swear a lot when I am not around, but they know to keep it cool when I am around so they wont sound unintelligent. And I called up our cable people, and I found out a way to censor and lock bad shows my sisters or I cant or shouldn't be watching. My parents have set that up. I dont how to do that, but I know there are ways you can through DISH network.
Kid, 11 years old

I have never said a cuss word in my life, even though I've heard basically every bad word there is in the English language, but I never say them, even if I really feel like it because, say, someone insulted me. I either A) walk away, or B) if they don't stop, I tell a teacher, or an adult. But I understand that kids say them to look "grown up" or "cool", or whatever. I wish this world was one without cussing.
Teen, 13 years old written by Novalita

The people I know who cuss, don't do it to be cool. They do it to be funny. Cussing can make a joke a lot funnier, but that doesn't make it OK.
written by Anonymous

Cursing is a problem in every school! I even hear 4th graders letting out the "F" word or "S" word! This is unacceptable! It's the media these kids watch that influences them the most. Some kids just swear and when I ask them why they say "it's just cursing" well cursing, to me, looks highly unattractive! Parents should teach kids that cursing is wrong!
Teen, 14 years old written by Safemancam001

It bothers me that I can't go to school without hearing the f-bomb at least 15 times. There are some times where swearing is acceptable, but the stronger words and swearing around younger children is rediculous. Swearing isn't cool, and it's true that people who do it a lot sound dumb. I don't usually swear. I may if one's in a quote I'm using, but I hate to say things stronger than a--. I'd like to say there's a reason we rate TV shows and movies. You shouldn't let a five-year-old be around a TV with a TV-14-L show playing or a movie rated PG-13 or R for language. You can't stop other people from swearing but you can avoid hearing it in the media.
Teen, 14 years old written by Spudling

The problem is that no matter how much you censor your kids' tv and media habits, they will always end up hearing profanity at school or in the street as it has become part of the social norm to swear in conversation.
Parent written by CSM Screen name...

I think that if we are loose with our words with some audiences it will slip or carryover to an audience not intended. I don't agree with the suggestion that its okay to talk one way with one audience and different with another. Let no unwholesome word come out of your mouth. That is being 2-faced. Is that what acceptable to teach your kids?
Teen, 16 years old written by Bub Bidderskins

There is all this ire about "curse" words. They're bleeped on television, they make parents gasp. But in reality curse words mean nothing. Saying "F***" when you hit your thumb with a hammer is totally meaningless. Curse words were artificially created by mankind, and now mankind is artificially offended by them. The offense should never be at the word itself, but rather at the concept. If somebody calls me a "piece of S***", my reaction is identical to that of being called a "piece of crap". In both cases the offensive part is that I'm being compared to a steaming pile, not the use of the word "s***". Instead of teaching kids not to use certain, we should be teaching them not to be rude to other people. I can be incredibly offensive to somebody without using a single "bad" word. Conversely, I can use several such words without being offensive at all. Case in point: George Carlin's Seven Dirty Words. When he rattles off his list of curse words, nobody should be offended. They're just words. However, when somebody tells you that you are an ignoramus (a word that is by no means "dirty") you should be offended, and you should teach your kids to avoid offending people in such a way.
Educator written by cvera

Using other words than the normally heard swear words shows you have more vocabulary and also presents you as an individual, someone who doesn't follow the "corriente" as we say here.
Adult written by Pawferfurry

Oh deary common sense. I do believe that swearing isn't classy, but really, trying to avoid it and keeping it out of our kids lives? Do you /want/ it to come across as a complete shock when they do get into school and hear this stuff all the time? Yes, it's not okay for children to be seeing swear words. But there is a certain point in a kids lives when you have to let go and open your eyes to the world around you. It's everywhere! They are GOING to see it! I agree with the article, it was nicely put together and showed some good points. I couldn't help that it went a bit overboard with words like "jerk", and "stupid" though.
Adult written by MomSamIAm

I think this was a well written article. I'm glad the author admitted to being less than stellar in the language department. I also like that the focus of the article is not on demanding a child completely eliminate "bad words" which can sometimes be powerful and empowering (which is why we occasionally let one fly), but rather on how to discuss situational language with a child. We don't talk to our friends and family the same way we talk to our boss or a stranger. These are societal norms. I agree that more and more preteen TV and other media lets more and more inappropriate language slip into the mainstream as well. Thanks for providing another excellent parenting tool.
Adult written by atkinsww

My dad was a medic during WWII and was in the Battle of the Bulge. His career was as an officer in the state prison system then as a social worker in the federal prison system. All that to say he has heard some language in his day. However, in my entire life I never heard him use profanity. What comes out of our mouth shows something of what is in our heart more than just a "slip of the tongue".
Teen, 14 years old written by Drayoc

I'm not saying that all people who swear constantly are all rude, mean people, but many of them do seem quicker to anger. If you make a mistake, often, most of them will start saying things that only belong in a rated R movie without giving you chance to apologize. I have several friends who swear often, they are mostly nice kind people, but they do seem a little more short tempered then my other less mouthy friends.
Teen, 13 years old written by worstsitever

So, you make an article warning about how detrimental swearing is, yet you use "bitch" in an article. I CAN'T ARGUE WITH THIS LOGIC
Adult written by jklm

I agree that there is always a nicer way to say something. This article is a great reminder of that. I don't think the author was suggesting this, but young kids should not be watching Modern Family or The Daily Show anyway. My best friend in HS swore all the time in public and it was so embarrassing to me. If I called her out on it, she got louder. I felt like it made me look just as bad as she looked. Swearing doesn't make kids look cool, it makes them look desperate for attention. P.S. I like the mom pictured in the article. Not Hollywood to me at all.
Parent of a 12 and 17 year old written by child.caring

Another issue is what to do when our children's friends come to our house or are in the car with us. I don't want my children to become judgmental of those who do "bad" things, and I also don't want them blurting out in public, "It is bad to say that word"! or to have a disdainful attitude toward those who live differently than we do. When my children's friends come over and use language that we don't use, I say in a friendly way, "We don't say that word in our family." I may have to repeat it another time, but this works well to set limits and yet be respectful of the children who probably do things differently at their house. On the rare occasion that they are not able to change their language, I talk with them privately and kindly about how we do things in our family, and that we would like them to be able to continue to come over, but we can't if they need to continue to use those words.
Teen, 13 years old written by Novalita

Also, at a certain age, friends might start recommending movies or shows that you would not let your child see. That's where Common Sense Media comes in ;D I think I know pretty well what my friends' parents let them see, so I might recommend 30 Rock to some of my friends and not to others (discretely though, not in a weird authoritative way).
Teen, 15 years old written by JoBrofanJa19

My mom once said something like "You can express every emotion ever without saying one curse word." So i agree a lot with this article, especially the "expand your vocabulary" part.
Teen, 14 years old written by Drayoc

I never swear, and it does reflect on you. Most of the people who drop the f-bomb every other word are very unrefined and mean people. Everyone knows I don't swear, and they respect it. Language on media doesn't really effect me though it makes my parents uncomfortable. Either way, try to stay away from it as much as possible. If your one of the people who only swears when your not around your parents, but you swear constantly around your friends, rember you are using vulgar and disgusting language. Even if you used to cuss all the time, and you deside to stop, it will still be hard to get rid of your reputation.
Teen, 13 years old written by Jessie rocks

Ummmm...yeah. I agree with most of this article, but my family lets me say things like "stupid" and "jerk" as long as I'm not calling my friends stupid or whatever.