Real Talk: Navigating a Potty Mouth

February 27, 2019

By J’Nel Wright

“Mom! Don’t sneak up on people! You scared the living sh** out of me!”

In my neighbor’s defense, she didn’t intend to sneak up on anybody. More importantly, what’s with this foul-mouthed six-year-old? And who can I blame? Are people developing filthy mouths faster? This concern dates as far back as 2008 when a Gallup poll reported 46 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 used profanity at least several times a week or daily. It’s one helluva situation.

When the number of articles that share punishment guidelines for garbage-mouthed youth equals those touting the benefits of cussing up a storm, how do we address the matter of swearing with our children?

Here are some things to consider:

Swearing has health benefits.

Studies show that a dirty mouth contributes to cleaner living. In the book Swearing is Good For You: The Amazing Science of Bad Language, author Emma Byrne, PhD, attributes swearing to increasing one’s pain threshold, improving strength, and helping “said swearer” better cope with stress. “Studies show that when you put people in stressful situations and tell them they cannot swear, their performance goes down and their experience of stress is much greater,” Byrne says. So, the good news is that we won’t die from cussing. Naturally, that is. How your mother handles your foul mouth is another story.

What else is going on?

Realistically, we can’t just sit back and allow our children to spout off in a PG-13 fashion. I mean, our playgroup would sh** their pants, right?

There is typically a reason for your child’s vocabulary. Perhaps they want to fit in with a social group, or they seek attention by getting a strong reaction from you. Or, it could be good old-fashioned frustration. I recall during finals week when a voice rang out in a packed library, “I have so much f***in’ homework. I don’t know where to start!” Rather than targeting the language, why not consider addressing the circumstances surrounding its use?

“Though they may not know what they mean, curse words are internalized as words with superpowers. And they get used when normal words just won’t fit the bill,” says Washington Post contributor Travis Wright. “When visiting the dentist for the first time, in the grocery checkout aisle when told they can’t have a package of gum, on the first day of school or when your boss is invited over for dinner.”

The exception? When words are a weapon. Like when your child’s teacher calls to report their new nickname courtesy of your foul-mouthed five-year-old. Oh, hells to the no! Using words to bully, intimidate, or show disrespect should not be tolerated. In that case, punishment is for being a jerk, not a potty mouth.

Kids learn by example.

“He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay,” Ralphie says about his father in A Christmas Story. “It was his true medium; a master.” So if you are dealing with a pint-sized cuss-asaurous, you may want to check your language. They picked it up from somewhere, and not every household has a Scott Schwartz to blame.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but . . .

Any term can take on energy. My grandma could make “sugar” sound so scathing even Drake would be reluctant to include it in his lyrics. “It is important to note that when it comes to swearing context matters,” said Ronald E. Riggio, PhD, “The same swear word can be used as an insult, an exclamation of surprise, or as an expression of pleasure when in the throes of passion.” (We’ll leave THAT angle for another time.) But the fact your child chooses to use those particular words warrants a candid conversation about the pleasure they gain from it. Which brings us to the issue of using too much profanity.

How much is too much?

Perhaps you consider all profanity bad. Or you may have pitched a tent in Camp Freeform and can’t live a day without directing someone (either affectionately or not) to go to hell. Experts agree that those words have an enduring foothold in the English language. Profanity accounts for about 0.5 percent of our total verbal output. And whether or not profanity is overused depends largely on the effect it has on us.

“Most of us have the common sense not to spoil profanity by using it too much,” says Michael Adams, professor of English at Indiana University. “Paradoxically, while we may need profanity to be fully human, if we’re too profane, we’re less human—and we lose a uniquely human capacity.” Basically, to get the most value from cursing—you better mean it.

Ironically, what’s considered by many as rather boorish behavior has complexities to it. And as a parent, it’s helpful to sort them out. Hey, sh** happens. And navigating through that muck takes practice. So use those expressions as a gateway to a deeper conversation about what your child is feeling and experiencing. Is there a better way to cope with strong emotions? It’s up to you to decide. Through that process, young people (and parents) can find long-term verbal and non-verbal tools for coping with their feelings.


J’Nel Wright is a freelance writer who specializes in topics concerning lifestyles, health and wellness, and business. Her work has appeared in a variety of regional and national publications. Her educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in English and Social Work. She has traveled throughout Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia, French Polynesia, Mexico and much of the United States.


Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers

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