“Oh, fudge!” It’s the expletive that leaves little Ralphie sitting with a bar of soap thrust in his mouth in 1983’s modern movie classic A Christmas Story. The irony in the film, of course, is that Ralphie learned such language from his father whose stream of obscenities is comic fodder for the film, yet handled as a series of nonsensical gibberish when provoked.
Most films, however, do not handle such language this way, and most movies are available to our children at the push of a button these days. There are parents, too, who don’t couch their language in nonsensical gibberish, but in the real, TV-MA rated variety.
For parents like Teresa Leary Jenkins, the mother of 12-year-old James and 4-year-old Phoebe, swearing is not tolerated, either by her children or adults in the family. Having said that, she acknowledges that, despite our best intentions, everyone slips.
“I don’t advocate him [James] cursing and I always say, 'Intelligent people don’t curse and you need to figure out ways to get your point across,’ but I do know that as adults we lose our temper and, as children, they lose their tempers as well,” says Jenkins. “I think sometimes we hold our children to this really high standard and it’s better to monitor it and not try to control it but try to help them work through it.”Forbidden Fruit Children’s wants and needs — from toys to food to friendship — vary, but there is one thing they all want at one time or another: to be an adult. Or, perhaps, to know what the freedom of an adult feels like; part of that sensation is found in language. There comes a point, a rite of passage almost, when a child will test the waters of vocabulary, mouth an expletive or two, to see how such a persona might fit.
Professor Dixie Crase, child development and family relationship expert with the University of Memphis, says there are several reasons children may begin to use otherwise forbidden language: because of its pervasiveness in our culture, an attempt to gain a parent’s attention, or to try and distract parents from other behavior or bad grades. And then, of course, there is peer pressure and simple emulation of what they hear at home and in close circles.
“Younger children, particularly, may just be modeling and mimicking what they hear, whether it’s from parents or from neighborhood friends and peer groups. Certainly the media begins to influence children depending on who’s monitoring what they hear, whether it’s music, development or the Internet,” Crase says. “Among their peer group, it’s a rite of passage to curse,” Jenkins says, “they’re trying to figure out who can say it, how do you say it, and when do you say it?Curb the Habit at Home Jay Fite, father to four children, ages 10 to 17, was a bartender for 15 years, and has worked in restaurants for much of his life, a lifestyle that lends itself to more salty talk. It would seem a hard habit to break.
“It was almost like leading a double life sometimes because you get to the bar and you’re talking like a drunken sailor along with all the other customers, and then you go home and you’re with your kids, but I really didn’t have any trouble with it.”
It “just seemed kind of natural,” he continues, “and after a while of trying to watch our mouths around them, it just became habit, I guess.”
Whether the decision to curb adult speak around children is one of a moral nature or simple good manners, it seems almost an uphill battle when it comes to fighting the influences of today’s television, movies and music.
“I believe in creativity and self-expression,” Jenkins says, “but I struggle with the music because I worry about the subliminal messages that are passed through the music. That is an ongoing dilemma for me.”
Crase acknowledges the need for creativity and self-expression, and advocates teaching children self-control and helping them understand that “language can get you into unfortunate outcomes if used inappropriately.”Teach What is Appropriate Younger children may have a lower tolerance for what are considered “bad words.” Maria Cole is directress of the 125-student Maria Montessori School in Harbor Town and says students will police themselves when seemingly tame words are bandied about, words such as “hate” or “stupid.”
“At the younger level, parents are pretty clear about not doing that; at the older level, from time to time, you might get a few doozies where you need to sit them down,” Cole says. “I think you just have to give them a really deep sense of moral justice and what is appropriate and what is not. And when it does come, don’t shame them, but just let them know they don’t want to say that, explain the repercussions of it and how it makes others feel.”
As parents, we can discuss the meanings of words with children, suggesting other ways to handle problems rather than bad words, model appropriate behavior, refrain from name calling, and share our values and the expectations we have for our kids’ behavior.
Crase also talks of children’s “executive function” and that they should be guided to learn to maintain self-control. “More than one bit of research says that there are long-term, positive outcomes associated with building that in, helping children to develop that ability to control their impulses to delay immediate gratification and to focus their attention.”
As benign a transgression as bad words may seem to some, special attention should be paid to swearing that is directed at another person, particularly an adult or authority figure, an instance where the language may be the symptom of a larger issue, Crase says. “That’s another level of inappropriate behavior and words on the part of the child and I think it really does need intervention on the part of parents.”