Cursing seems to be everywhere, challenging parents to tame kids' colorful speech

Monday, July 10th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

When Suzanne Jeffers of Dallas drove her son home from day care one afternoon, she ended up behind a long line of cars slowly snaking past an accident on Central Expressway. She tooted her horn to signal another car to take the right of way and was astonished when her 20-month-old son, Mason, immediately blurted out, "Move it, @#$%&*!"

"Apparently, Mason learned that expression from his dad, who usually picks him up from day care and has to drive home through rush-hour traffic," Mrs. Jeffers says.

"And the way he said it sounded just like his dad."

That evening, Suzanne and Mark Jeffers had a long talk about their use of colorful language and how these expressions were being absorbed by their young son.

"We knew that he'd pick up a few curse words somewhere in his childhood, but we never imagined he'd be screaming them from his car seat," she says. "We both agreed that even though it was funny once, we couldn't let it happen again. And that meant we both had to find other expressions to use."

According to Vicki Kelley, a child life and child development specialist at Bluitt-Flowers Health Center in South Dallas, the first time parents hear their child use off-color language, their eyes usually are opened to their own vocabularies.

"They suddenly realize what a big impact they have on their child's developing language," Ms. Kelley says. "Unfortunately, they usually laugh about the incident, which sends the message to the child that this is an entertaining way to talk."

Of course, if you watch television, read books, listen to popular music, attend movies and sporting events or even go out to dinner, you're bound to hear a litany of words that could make a sailor blush.

It seems that what once were known as "bad" words are commonly spoken and accepted everywhere except church and charm school.

As a result, many people have become somewhat desensitized to the effects of cursing, and some families don't see crude language as a problem.

"There are a lot of families that don't think twice when their kids come home from school using the f-word," says Ms. Kelley, who adds that these families see cursing as just part of the language of our culture.

"Cursing has gradually become more and more accepted," says James O'Connor, author of Cuss Control: The Complete Book On How To Curb Your Cursing (Three Rivers Press, $12.95). "And it's not just the traditional cuss words that are being used. There's a growing acceptance of those semi-curse words that people pretend don't mean what they really mean."

This "adult language" has even made its way onto network television, where programs that range from silly (The Simpsons) to serious (NYPD Blue) are throwing around words that you'd probably have to explain to Grandma.

"It really sends mixed messages to kids when they're watching a show like The Simpsons and you hear Bart calling his dad names," Ms. Kelley says. "Kids then think that's an OK thing to do, especially if Dad is sitting there laughing along with the kids. These programs really are examples of adult humor."

According to Mr. O'Connor and Ms. Kelley, cursing is rooted in an inability to handle anger and frustration. Adults and children who don't have the skills to express anger or frustration in a less offensive way often resort to cursing because it is easy and gives them a sense of power.

Unfortunately, it gives listeners the impression that the person doing the swearing is uneducated, uncivilized and small-minded, Mr. O'Connor says.

"When my son Demitrius was 14, I overheard him cursing with his teammates after a basketball game," says Lois Charles of Dallas. "I'd never heard that language from him, and he'd certainly never heard anything like that in our home."

Mrs. Charles, who also has three young daughters, responded to the situation with a long talk with her son about family appearances.

"I reminded him that when he was out in the world, people would draw impressions about his family by the way he acted and what he said," Mrs. Charles says. "I explained that I didn't want anyone to think that our family used that kind of language, and that by saying those words he was painting the whole family in an ugly light. That really seemed to click with him, and he says he's given up swearing with his buddies ever since."

For many kids, however, swearing is not simply a case of parroting parents; it's a determined attempt to gain independence and put distance between them and their parents.

"A lot of kids pick up cursing as teens because they want to identify more with their peers than their parents," Ms. Kelley says. "It serves the same function as dyeing their hair purple."

The best way to curb cursing is to talk with kids about the feelings behind these words and the negative impact on the person who hears them, experts say. When children learn to express themselves more effectively, they can choose less offensive words to make their point.

For the Jeffers family, this means taking a deep breath before blurting out choice words known for relieving traffic tension. The family also has come up with a few acceptable expressions that they don't mind hearing parroted back to them.

"My husband and I are really relying on the word 'Bozo' these days," Mrs. Jeffers says. "It sounds much better coming out of Mason's mouth than some of the harsher alternatives."

Patricia Lowell is a Dallas free-lance writer.

How to help your children cut back on bad language

Cursing serves different purposes for kids of different ages. Here are some suggestions for identifying kids' cursing habits and tips on limiting blue language.

First, parent's shouldn't rely on the "it's a bad word" explanation. Experts say kids need to understand the meaning of the words and the feelings they elicit. Then parents can provide other options for kids to use when they feel angry or frustrated.

With toddlers and preschoolers, cursing almost always involves parroting what they've learned from parents and friends.

"At age 2, children usually have about 200 words in their vocabulary, and you can bet a few of them are curse words they've picked up along the way," Ms. Kelley says.

These words generally are used to display frustration when children can't fully express their feelings.

Parents should talk with children about what they were feeling when they curse and give them more acceptable words to use. And remember to keep a straight face when you hear colorful comments. Laughter only encourages the behavior.

School-age children curse mainly to express feelings, but children of this age usually know other words that can be substituted.

These children often are enthralled by "potty humor," which is their way of making fun of body parts and functions that they don't fully understand or that they find embarrassing. This kind of humor is age-appropriate, but parents can help children understand that some words shouldn't be used in social situations or when the words make people uncomfortable.

Preteens are struggling to appear capable and independent and they want to be accepted by their peers. Rough language at this age usually is meant to help them fit in and appear cool. Parents can talk to children about the value of being a leader, even if that means having a different standard from their friends or saying "no" to behavior that reflects poorly on them.

Teenagers, for the most part, want to appear powerful and independent of their families. If they haven't addressed cursing up to this point, parents may have a hard time trying to tackle it at precisely the time when children are struggling to be independent. Still, a conversation about the hurtful tone and inference of these words can help children move away from some of the harsher expletives.

SOURCES: Vicki Kelley, a child development specialist, and James O'Connor, author of Cuss Control: The Complete Book on How To Curb Your Cursing