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Swearing Off Swear Words

Help your child clean up his or her language (sans soap)

Grappling for ways to curb your teen's vocabulary? If the lurid language has you tempted to grab an Ivory bar, don't despair. Gain insight into why she's choosing the words she is – and firm up a few ground rules. It'll help you help your kid purge the potty mouth.

What the heck?

"Many young people resort to swearing as a means to try to demonstrate their level of maturity," says retired New York psychology professor Dr. Francis Compton. Now a mentor and lecturer, he's has spent more than 30 years studying and understanding the social behaviors of adolescents.

"Children and young adults mistakenly equate verbal demonstrations with a level of maturity. They honestly believe they're perceived older if they use words typically associated with adults," he explains.

Compton also found that using profanity isn't restricted to kids who "weren't taught better." In fact, it doesn't vary much from rural, urban or suburban areas. In a 2000 study, Compton discovered most kids in any of these settings admitted to using curse words at least three times a day.

Defining profanity

Kids apparently have a different idea of what constitutes profane language, too. "The vast majority cited that using mild or moderate curse words, often heard on television, was not actually swearing," Compton says. "In fact, many felt that vulgar slang or profanities heard on television were a normal and acceptable aspect of everyday language."

Melissa Reid's family is in that majority. Stunned by what she heard her 12-year-old daughter mutter in disgust to herself when she was trying to solve a math assignment, she immediately questioned Tiffanie on her choice of words. "I'll never forget her reply," says Reid, of Ithaca, N.Y., "when she said, 'It's no big deal mom. It's not like I'm really swearing.' I wondered how I failed to instill good values."

Some curse words are universally considered profane in our culture, but others are more borderline, especially to youth. Media can muddy the picture for tweens and teens. That's why parents have to firmly establish what is and isn't considered a swear word in their household. Setting clear rules is the first step to curbing swearing.

When and why

"Teens equate swearing to a rite of passage," says social worker Brent Pearlman of Libertyville, Ill. "As parents, we can help them learn healthier ways of expressing and developing maturity." The next step to cleaning up teen talk is listening to your teen.

"When you ascertain in what scenarios and environments he typically swears, you can help him find alternatives to express himself," he adds. For instance, if your teen considers it cool to pepper profanity in conversations, help him or her realize it isn't. Swearing makes a person look out of control, crude and ignorant. Definitely not cool traits.

Encourage teens to think of alternative ways to express themselves. If your teen refers to a disliked classmate as an "a--hole," ask him what he doesn't like about that person. Perhaps the classmate is boorish and snobby. Fine: Those are the words he should use. In addition to being more refined, the description is more revealing than a blanket profanity.

Deterrents

Experts like Pearlman also suggest parents model the language they expect their kids to use.

"Reinforcing positive expressions of various emotions lets teens know there's another way to say the same thing," says Pearlman. Of course, the frustration of stalled traffic or dropping a can of peaches on your foot can cause the most restrained individual to use an inappropriate word. But if you do slip up, acknowledge it.

Additionally, helping your teen realize there are consequences to all of his actions – including swearing – provides another deterrent. If your teen has to pay a predetermined fee for every profanity used, he may think twice about spending his hard-earned cash on cursing.

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