A recent participant in my parenting class called and asked at what age children learn to swear and if there was a way to stop it? What instantly came to mind is how children learn language, any language; by hearing it and repeating it. Babies younger than a year are great imitators. If you smile, they smile. If you make a funny face, they will try to mimic it. This is true of words: when you call an object by its name, they learn it. So why wouldn’t a swear word be the same? When an adult or another child says a forbidden word, any age child is likely to repeat it.
Many parents say, “Well, he will hear it on the schoolyard or the bus anyhow” and that is true. But when adults they love and respect swear, the effect is powerful. So when parents swear and say “I am an adult, I can cuss but children shouldn’t,” they need to realize children will still repeat it. And it isn’t just parents; I was disappointed when the team leader of my very own Cleveland Cavaliers uttered the word many think is the king of all swear words during the celebration for their recent championship. Many children look up to sports figures, movie stars, and rock musicians; so whether they like it or not, they are role models and shape the culture of our country.
Children are swearing earlier due in part to the proliferation of these words in music, movies, and TV shows. Children begin repeating swear words without knowing the meaning as early as age 2 and become proficient by 11 or 12. Using profanity has also been tied to a progression into aggressive behavior for children, particularly teens.
So how do we correct this behavior? Some suggestions are:
- Be a role model and don’t use those words especially when your children are near.
- Ask adults in your child’s life not to swear around your children.
- When your child or someone else says a swear word in your presence, tell him or her, “We don’t use those kinds of words.”
- Be aware of programs, movies and lyrics to songs your children are listening to– and turn them off– or otherwise express your dislike. Yes, they will hear them elsewhere, but knowing you disapprove is powerful.
- Discuss with your children how you feel about swearing and warn them there will be consequences for using those words. Then follow up when you hear something inappropriate.
It is true that we cannot control what our children hear and see completely– but we can help them understand our values around swearing as well as the consequences of using inappropriate language.