Linda Boissinot’s a real Canadian: She can swear in both official languages. “My father swore in French, our language at home, and my mother never uttered a curse word.
“I remember consciously and deliberately practising swear words in English when I was in grade eight to help with my popularity with my peers,” she says.
With that memory, she wasn’t surprised when her own two boys (now 18 and 22) picked up a few cuss words in their early teens. In fact, these days, you have to wonder how teens could avoid learning to swear, when it’s so prevalent in schoolyard conversations and the media. (The network might bleep Gordon Ramsay, but everyone knows what he’s saying — and how often he says it.) On the other hand, it’s still offensive to many people — you may not want your 12-year-old using that language around Grandma — and it can get teens into trouble.
Many of us parents aren’t doing that great as role models, either. We generally try to watch our language around the kids, but those words can slip out — even if you’re supposed to be a parenting expert. Just ask Judy Arnall, a Calgary parent educator and author of Discipline Without Distress. She remembers teaching a course for a group of teens about interpersonal communications, with lots of emphasis on using “I-statements” to express their feelings. “After the class, I was driving some of the kids home and another car cut me off. Yes, I swore at the driver. And one of the kids in the back seat piped up: ‘Can you rephrase that as an I-statement?’” Arnall recalls with a laugh.
“Kids feel the power behind those words,” she adds. “I don’t think it’s all that terrible for them to hear us swear occasionally, in those situations. And they are certainly going to hear those words with their peers. The goal is to teach them when it’s OK and when it’s not appropriate.”
Boissinot agrees and says the challenge is not just knowing the situations when cursing is inappropriate, but learning to control the impulse to use bad language in those situations when you’re feeling stressed or upset. A teen who has gotten into the habit of swearing to express anger and frustration may slip back into that mode even when he knows he shouldn’t.
That’s where being aware all the time can help, says Arnall. “Even when they’re with their peers, I remind children to look around and think about who else might hear them. Are there young children around? Teachers? Other people who might be offended? You want them to be sensitive to how their language affects others so that they don’t just use those words without thinking.”
Arnall adds that while the classic swear words may have shock value when used in casual conversation, “they don’t really hurt anyone.” She’s more concerned about another kind of bad language: For example, she says, “gay can be the baddest of the bad words. We often hear kids saying ‘Oh, that’s so gay’ to describe something they think is stupid or not cool, and that can be potentially very hurtful.” She reminds teens she works with that they may not know which of their peers are gay but haven’t yet come out, and using words like gay or fag in such negative ways creates an environment that makes it tough for gay teens to feel safe or accepted.
Swear words can also be attacks. “Words can be weapons,” Boissinot points out. “I would never tolerate a swear word, even one I would otherwise find inoffensive, if it’s directed at someone.”
So when the language turns foul at your house, Arnall suggests:
Set your standards Your rule may be no swearing in the house, or no swearing where your younger children might hear it. “Expect, though, that the kids will test it out and see how serious you are,” adds Arnall.
Respond calmly Part of the pleasure of swearing for teens is being able to shock adults; if you don’t react, then the incentive to swear is diminished. “Tell them you find that language offensive, or remind them of the no-swearing rule, and end the conversation,” says Arnall.
Don’t embarrass your teens “If your daughter has her friends over and they’re all swearing, let it go for the moment, and talk to your daughter later,” says Arnall.
Focus on the effects on others “It’s not the words, it’s how they can make other people feel,” points out Arnall. “Help them to see that bad language is ‘bad’ because it can be hurtful.”
For many teens, swearing is a way of fitting in with peers and “trying out” adult behaviours, adds Arnall. “It tends to peak in the early teen years, and then diminishes as teens mature.” So don’t worry that the newly expanded vocabulary of your 13-year-old daughter means she’s doomed to a life as a potty mouth.