Should we stop swearing in front of our kids?

We all know that kids learn language from their parents, so is it time you installed a swear jar at home?

Man talking over mobile phone standing at the breakfast table

Part of being a parent is giving up things you used to enjoy. Some of them are easier to let go of – double-day hangovers, finding vomit on your shoes – while other things, like sleeping and sex, are harder to say goodbye to.

One habit that a lot of parents find surprisingly difficult to break is swearing. Fortunately, unlike sleep-ins, you don’t have to just cut it out altogether for the first 18 years of your child’s life.

You can still swear yourself stupid at night, or whenever the kids are not around, but you do need to find your ‘off’ switch, unless you want your offspring to sound like the kids off South Park.

What’s even harder than stopping yourself, of course, is retraining your friends, particularly the childless ones, to follow your example. Indeed, sometimes this is simply impossible.

How soon will I need to stop swearing?

This is not an exact science, because the speed at which children pick up and start parroting your language is different. You will, however, know the exact moment when you’ve waited too long, and blown it.

For me it was when my four-year-old daughter shouted “What the f*ck?” as we walked along a busy street one day. I decided, or deluded myself, that I must have heard her wrong. Then she did it again that afternoon.

Later that week she was being looked after by a friend of my wife, who was driving her somewhere when she was cut off by another driver. Being a polite, swear-aware woman she managed to stop herself at “What the !?!?”, at which point my daughter finished the sentence for her. Loudly.

My wife, for whom that is a favourite phrase, will never live that down.

It is better, of course, to try and wean yourself off swearing – not forever and for everywhere, but at least when there are children in the room – from the moment your newborn arrives. Because the thing is that some people seem to find it particularly hard to give up.

Personally, I’ve got a mental Profanisaurus and love to find new and interesting ways to swear. And yet I’ve found it reasonably easy to divide my language into Sweet Like Chocolate at home and Giant Swear Bear outside of it.

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My wife, on the other hand, who looks like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, has struggled womanfully to cut out swearing, and is probably 90 per cent there now. Unless someone cuts her off in traffic.

Will it harm them if I swear in front of them?

Physically, no, but socially, it can be injurious. If your kid turns up to a fifth birthday party and tells the Batman impersonator that’s he’s ‘a big fat shithead and he should f*ck off’, your invites will dry up pretty quickly.

But here’s an interesting thing, a couple I have known for more than 30 years have always been big ol’ bogan swearers, and they never cut back for their kids. This made me uncomfortable, even when I didn’t have little ones.

Their two children, however, are hugely polite, well-spoken young adults, now in their early twenties, and I’ve never heard either of them swear. Ever. Not even in anger.

So it is possible that the rules you set are more important than the example you provide. This is, however, a high-risk approach and not to be encouraged. (They also may be rebelling against their parents.)

How do you stop?

Largely, the way you speak is a force of will, presence of mind kind of thing. If you really want to stop, you should be able to retrain your brain.

If it is too hard, though, what can help is a swear jar. I know one couple whose kids swear (excuse the pun) that they’re close to being able to buy tickets to Disneyland (including flights and hotel), with the money their father has poured into the family jar.

Trying to encourage or punish yourself might work, but what is definitely more effective is hearing your own children swear, and then trying to explain the vast double standard of it being okay for you, but not them.

What about your friends?

Good luck with this one. Clearly, people who have children are going to be better placed to help you out, but your childless friends will almost certainly struggle – or refuse to struggle – with not dropping the f-bomb around your kids.

You can ask, but it’s awkward, and they can promise to try, but they really do tend to find it hard, due to a lack of motivation.

Just take deep breaths, maybe stop inviting them to your children’s birthday parties, and sit and wait for the day when they have their own, and will finally feel your pain.

Why do the rugrats swear?

According to Raising Children, children swear because they’re exploring language, and thus anything they hear becomes part of those experiments.

They might be trying to understand the word that Daddy uses whenever his footy team loses. Apparently they can also swear by accident when trying to learn new words (but I’m not buying that).

It’s possible they’re trying to express extreme frustration – and they associate those words with you feeling that emotion – and it’s even more likely that they’re saying the word to get a reaction, because they think it’s funny.

This, unfortunately, is your fault too, because you’ll almost certainly laugh your head off in front of them the first few times they do it. There’s something strangely cute about toddlers swearing like tiny sailors.

What to do if your toddler swears?

Much like the way you’re supposed to behave if a grizzly bear comes at you – don’t run, stay calm, make yourself big, try not to evacuate bowels – your proper reaction to a swearing toddler is harder than it sounds (it also involves staying calm).

According to the experts, your best bet is to ignore the swearing completely and act like nothing unusual has happened. So that means no reaction, no eye contact, no reprimanding and no laughing.

As hard as that can be.

If they’re swearing to seek attention, basically, you need to cut that attention off. If, of course, they just can’t pronounce “give me a truck” or “I need a sit” properly, gently correct them.

Safe words

What you and your partner probably need to agree on, quite early, is what words will count as swearing, because you need to be consistent. And anything that’s on the banned list you need to cut out of your daily lexicon.

This is all so you can say, when the time comes, “We don’t use words like that”, and they can’t just look at you and laugh, scornfully.

Unfortunately, this can be harder than you might think. My wife, for example, tells the kids that “crap” and “hell” are swear words, and that “God” and “Jesus Christ” are not ways of expressing frustration.

To which I say, what a load of sh*t.

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