‘Tweens and Bad Language

photo by baileyraeweaver @ flickr.com

Figuring out the rules about swearing can be confusing for ‘tweens. Up until about middle school, most parents teach their children not to use “bad words,” or at least try to discourage the use of profanity. But suddenly, around the end of 5th grade, kids start trying out their new understanding of these “naughty” words and begin to throw around a little language designed to shock teachers and impress peers.

My son tends to be a rule following type of guy. As an only child, he isn’t used to hearing the “s-word” or the “f-bomb” thrown around by older siblings. And frankly, hubby and I try to keep it clean when he is around. For a while, our son was expressing some anxiety when he heard his friends swearing, and he admitted that he was trying to rehabilitate his friends on the playground.

He said casually, “I told them, ‘Instead of saying ‘What an ass,’ I suggested they say, ‘What an asp.’”

Oh. My Gosh. He’s trying to fix his friends? I freaked out a little, picturing my child getting his “asp” kicked after receiving a super-atomic wedgie.

Hubby said, “Listen, I understand that you don’t like to swear, but it’s important that you worry about your own actions and behaviors and that you don’t police your friends. Let the teachers handle that. Kids who make bad choices eventually get in trouble.”

My husband and I tried to explain to our ‘tween that there are different types of swearing –- that there is a kind of subtext to each — and that he would need to understand them all. Mind you, we were not encouraging our son to swear, we just wanted him to understand it is not his job to police his friends as they try out the new words in their lexicon.

Here’s how we broke it down:

photo by meddygarnet @ flickr.com

1. The Frustrated Swear. You get to school and realize you’ve forgotten your math textbook at home. “In cases like this, someone may exclaim, ‘Oh shit!’” we explained, “It’s like a giant ‘Omigosh’ where you are talking to yourself more than to anyone else.”

2. The Filler Word. You say something funny or unbelievable, and your friend says, “You’ve gotta be shitting me!” Used in this context, the swear word is kind of a compliment. It like a giant, “No way! That’s awesome!” we explained. “It means you’ve impressed someone.” No harm, no foul. No one gets hurt.

3. The Whispered Swear. This one, we explained, is trickier. You could be in school, listening to a presentation when someone leans over to you and says something quietly behind a cupped hand: “I wish she was shut up with this stupid shit.” This one, we continued, depends on who is saying it and how it is being said. If you are both bored to tears, it can be camaraderie building. You share a quick little nod or smile, and it’s over. But if someone you don’t know well says this to you, they may be trying to get you into trouble, by getting you to respond with a comment or a more obvious kind of disobedience. We told our child he’d have to use careful judgment there.

4. The Threatening Swear. Again, this one can be confusing, as it is all about the people involved, the tone and demeanor. If a kid says, “You are a stupid piece of shit!” to another kid, it is up to the recipient of the comment to decide how to react. If the comment comes complete with a finger-poke to the chest – the recipient of the comment may feel the need to minimize contact with the chest poker, potentially tell an adult, particularly if there has been a history of bullying between the two. But if two good friends say the same comment and they are playfully giggling, it is probably safe to assume that it is not a threatening situation.

“Bottom line,” my husband said, “We don’t want to ever hear that you have been heard swearing in front of any adults. No teachers. Coaches. Friends’ parents. Or mom and me. Ever. Got it?” Hubby asked.

Child nodded.

Twenty-four hours passed and our family attended a fabulous gathering with a friends whom we hadn’t seen in a long time. The air was warm, the kids were getting along perfectly; the grass was emerald-green. The food was piled high and everything is delicious.

Suddenly, our friend (and former neighbor), Steve, came over and said, “Wow! Your son has quite a mouth on him.”

Hubby and I weren’t sure where he was going with this.

“He just told me I have a fly on my dick.”

“What?!” Hubby and I asked in stereo.

Within five seconds, we had our child cornered under a tree for questioning.

“What did you just say to Mr. L?” I asked.

Without hesitation, Monkey confessed. “I told him he had a fly on his dick.”

“Are you kidding me?” Hubby looked up at the sky. “What did we just talk about?”

“What?” asks our son. “Dick isn’t a swear.” (Insert a long, confused pause here.) “Daddy goes to Dick’s all the time!”

“Dick’s, the retail sporting goods store, is not a swear,” I agreed. “It’s a place to buy golf balls and baseball pants and sneakers. Dick can also be a person’s name, and that’s not a swear word, either. But if you are talking about private body parts or what private body parts do, well . . . that’s not appropriate.”

(Call me a terrible parent, but it was soooo hard not to laugh.)

Our child looked embarrassed and completely baffled.

“Look,” Hubby said, “You’re going to figure it out.”

Boy looked doubtful.

I have every confidence that my child will figure out the swearing thing.

I am bracing for that day.


How do you teach your kids about swearing? Or do you just let them say whatever they want?

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