Swearing Means You’re a Bad Parent?

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February 18th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

If so, you’re in quite a bit of company. 86% of parents swear in front of children according to a recent poll of 3,000 kids aged 11 years. And they do it on average 6 times per week.

We find it rather ironic that one of the arguments used in child custody cases is that a parent swears in front of the kids. Seriously, some “child owner” parents who refuse to share custody of their kids with their ex will go so far as to claim it’s justified because mommy or daddy swore in front of the kids. And they take a holier-than-thou attitude of “God forbid that the kids might have sworn too!” Then they put it down in court documents that this means the kids should have no contact with that foul-mouthed parent!

That’s a particularly ridiculous argument given that children are surrounded by a culture that uses swear words. They hear them at school, on TV, in movies, and in the homes of their friends. So should kids be banned from all those activities, too?

To be clear, yelling and swearing directed at a child can be considered emotional and verbal abuse. It teaches the child that it’s OK to be unkind to others and out of control of their emotions. As most parents know, two year olds are already good at the latter and don’t need more lessons. Yelling and swearing at children is not a good idea, and really can harm the child. But the harm is largely or entirely due to emotional stress coming from a hostile environment and particularly from feeling disliked by a parent, not due to “colorful” vocabulary that quite frankly is likely to not be new to your child anyway.

To hear it from the anti-shared-custody parents, however, if mommy swears at her computer when it crashes yet again and loses another hour of work, daddy swears at a driver who cuts him off in traffic, or a step-parent cuss when inadvertently smashing a finger with a hammer, that obviously warrants “no contact” between parent or step-parent and the children. Except in really extreme circumstances, particularly when the swearing and emotional outbursts are directed at the kids repeatedly, this does not even approach a reasonable argument.

Psychologist Paul Bloom explained that one day his six year old son Max came home and wanted to discuss what the worst swear word of all was. He thought it must be “damn” because when he hears his babysitter talking on the phone, she uses the ‘f’ word and ‘s’ word but never, ever dares to use the ‘d’ word.

Harvard psychologist pointed out that kids are heavily influenced by exposure to peers and people other than parents. “That’s why kids of immigrants end up with the accent of their peer group rather than their parents.”

Taking it further, if “mommy or daddy swears and shouldn’t be around the kids” was a reasonable argument, then kids should probably be kept in padded sound-proof chambers in isolation. Frankly, that’s what it would take to keep them from hearing swearing in most cultures today. And it would likely only “work” if they haven’t heard swearing already, as mistreating a child like that would probably provoke the child to swear!

Even if your three year old swears occasionally, it’s not that unusual. The child may not even know what it means, just that it was an attention-grabbing word. Resolve to look yourself in the mirror and clean up what you can. Don’t reinforce the swearing by calling attention to it. That means don’t reward it with laughter, high-fives, or negatively reward it with swearing back. Remember, sometimes kids get attention-starved and learning that cussing draws a lot of attention may cause them to cuss a lot more.

If you do swear sometimes and your child seems disturbed by it, discuss it. Explain that sometimes people swear when they are upset or hurt, but that swear words make some people uncomfortable and people who swear a lot often get the reputation for being rude. So it’s better not to swear, but parents do make mistakes especially when they are upset and so even a good parent might swear sometimes. Open discussion can resolve a lot of problems and misunderstandings.

But whatever you do, don’t use your ex-spouse’s occasional swearing as a reason to block contact. If you think that’s a valid reason to do so, you are probably either rushing to join the vindictive child-owning parental-alienating set of bad parents or are already one. Except in extreme circumstances, children need and want both parents in their lives. Parents who push some other agenda, especially when it goes to the extreme of parental alienation, are far more likely to be bad for their kids than the typical cussing parent.

Further Reading

Nine out of 10 parents swear in front of children

NPR: Why Kids Curse

Parenting and Child Health – Health Topics – Swearing


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