by James Lehman, MSW
Don't pick up that bar of soap yet! James Lehman, MSW has great advice for parents on what to do when their child has a foul mouth, from generalized cursing to verbal abuse.
You: "Why didn't you do your homework?"
Your child: "I hate f------ school. I hate my f------ teacher."
You: "Don't talk to me like that!"
Your child: "Why not? You swear, too."
Stop this scene right here. Your child is attempting to get you into a fight. When your child curses, above all, do not get into a power struggle over it with them. Parents should ignore the invitation to argue at this point and say, "We're not talking about anything else. 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 get into arguments. 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 keep it going. Later, when your child calms down, give them a consequence for swearing. Each family should have a routine way of differentiating swearing from verbal abuse, and a different system for dealing with each behavior.
Let me be clear: If your child curses at you, what you need to understand is that they're trying to hurt you, throw you off balance, or suck you into a fight. I believe that families should have clear rules about cursing. There shouldn't be any discussion about it when it happens. And in my mind, there's a difference between kids cursing in general or cursing at you or another family member, and calling you rude names. But either way, families need to establish rules around it. Often kids curse 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. Understand that this is a way of solving the problem of being frustrated, but in a very immature way. In these instances, when things calm down, kids need to be taught that cursing doesn't solve their problems-it adds to it. Because not only do they have their original problem, now they've got an extra consequence on top of that, whether they lose some of their allowance or they forfeit some video game time.
There's No Excuse for Verbal Abuse
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 opening example, that?s 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 sexualized terms, when this kind of attacking name-calling happens, this is verbal abuse, not just swearing. It is damaging, not just obnoxious. It has to be dealt with in the same way you'd deal with any kind of abusive behavior. When a child says, "You whore," or "You faggot," that's damaging to your other children, and you?re responsible for protecting them from that kind of attack.
Make no bones about it: 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 practice for a day 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 day of practice is not the end of the world. What's more important is not letting your child call you or his siblings those foul, foul names. If your child is not involved in sports, then have him lose his electronics for a few days. The best way to handle that is by saying, "You can't have your phone back until you don't call your sister those names for 24 hours." If your child calls his sister a foul name 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. By the way, when I say letter, I mean a brief paragraph. And what the letter has to say is, "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.
For Younger Children
I believe it's helpful if you 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 and pleasantly correct them, and try to teach them that what they've said is a bad word. The way I say it is, "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 use a different word.
Establish a "No Swearing" Rule-and Make Everyone Pay the Consequences
For children who are older, an effective thing you can do as a family to curtail swearing is to establish a "Cursing Jar". If anyone in your family curses, they have to put a quarter 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; you should give your child extra things to do. Look at it this way: if you make your child do the dishes because he cursed, and then you ask him to do them again on Thursday 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. 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 watching TV. Say for example your child has an hour free time to play video games, but the way he gets that hour is by doing his homework first. If he curses, that extra chore you give him is done during that hour, and he loses part or all of his free time. That system should be in place, so later on when your child calms down and wants to deal with the issue because she wants her cell phone back, you can say, "You know the consequences for cursing and name-calling." And they should get a different checkmark or extra chore for every time they curse.
What about Kids Who Swear at You under Their Breath?
Some kids swear passive aggressively, 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 so that he doesn't have to develop self-control.
Swearing is an issue at some time in all families. It's one of the ways that frustration and anger are verbalized in our culture. Nonetheless, parents have to work very diligently on watching their language and being role models for their children, as well as holding their children accountable. Disrespect for authority is a major problem affecting children and adults today. It's important to 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.
by James Lehman, MSW
James Lehman is a behavioral therapist and the creator of The Total Transformation Program for parents. He has worked with
and children for three decades. James holds a Masters Degree in Social Work from Boston University. For more information, visit