Here’s the latest anonymous question from one of my readers:

My kids are 9 and 6, and they’ve been swearing more lately. I try not to make a big deal about it lest they use the words more often to get attention, but some of the language they are “trying out” is truly inappropriate and offensive. Most of this happens at home with just our family around (thankfully). How do I address this in a manner that lets them know it isn’t right and does not give any incentive to continue swearing?

Dear Reader,

This is a great question, and a really f*cking annoying problem to have to deal with. (HA! See what I did there?!)

Seriously, though, there are steps you can take to clean up your kids’ potty mouths. Here are a few ideas:

First, you need to get crystal clear on why the swearing bothers you. Some folks curse, others don’t, and different parents have different levels of tolerance for dirty words coming from the mouths of their little angels. The truth is that there is no right or wrong here (assuming your kids know enough not to hurt other people’s feelings or blurt the s-word in the middle of class or during church or whatever), but you do need to be honest about where you and your parenting partner (if you have one) come down on this issue.

If you do swear from time to time, but prefer your kids don’t, that might make it more challenging to curb their tendencies. That’s not to say it will be impossible, of course; you are allowed to have different rules for adults and kids. It will be trickier, though, because the more kids hear swear words, the more likely they will be to say them (which means you also need to be thoughtful about what they’re watching on TV), and every time they hear you drop a bomb, you’ll hear about it from them.

In addition, once you are clear on where you come down on the swearing issue, you’ll be better equipped to explain your concerns to your children. They’re old enough now to expect an explanation, and the clearer and more authentic that explanation is, the more likely they will be to respect it. Perhaps you find swearing generally offensive, or just inappropriate for children? Maybe you’re concerned they might be judged or get in trouble for it, or that they might hurt someone’s feelings or otherwise damage their relationships? Maybe your mother-in-law will kill all of you if she hears anything spicier than “fiddlesticks” coming out of their mouths. It doesn’t matter what the reason is, as long as it’s the truth for you.

Once you’re clear on that, you’re ready to move on to Operation Soap Their Mouths Out.

Just kidding. You don’t really need to go that far. But it is ok to utilize an appropriate and impactful consequence each time they swear. Here’s what I would recommend:

Pick a consequence that will bum them out just enough to change their behavior, but won’t make life significantly harder for you. It needs to be something you can enforce quickly and easily, whether you’re at home, in the car, or the grocery store. Take a dollar off their allowance, take 10 minutes off their screen time for the day, or whatever amounts are right for your family. Each time they say something offensive, make a note of it on a notecard or your phone, and then FOLLOW THROUGH. Don’t discuss. Don’t negotiate. Don’t give them attention for this misbehavior. You can say something as simple as, “Swearing, that’s a dollar,” and then no more talking after that.

You may notice that I put the words FOLLOW THROUGH in big fat capital letters. I did this because following through is the key to success. This plan will only work if they actually get less allowance or screen time as a result of their language. If you don’t FOLLOW THROUGH every single time, they will know you don’t mean it, and they will no longer give a, um, hoot, about your silly little rules.

Once you have the plan in place, it’s time to have the conversation. Ideally, this conversation happens when you’re calm and in a good mood, and the kids aren’t too tired or cranky. Let them know that you’re not ok with the swearing, why you’re not ok with it, and that it needs to stop. Tell them what the consequence will be each and every time they cross the line.

Your kiddos might challenge you on this, perhaps by complaining that the consequence is too mean, or by questioning you about every single word. “Can we say damn? What if we mean dam, like the big wall? What about shiiii-atsu mushroom? What about fartburgler? Can we say that? What if you say it? Are we allowed to say it then? Can we say it in our own bedrooms with the door closed? In the bathroom with the water running?”

DO NOT ENGAGE. REPEAT: DO NOT ENGAGE. It will not end well for you.

Just let them know that if you hear them swear, there will be a consequence, and if they don’t want that consequence, they’d better not cross the line. They’d better not even tiptoe up to the line. End of discussion.

As time passes, and their potty mouths get a little less pottyish, you can ease up on the consequences if you want to, or not. But right now you need them to take you seriously before this habit becomes even more entrenched. And remember, the key to all of this is that you must FOLLOW THROUGH. It’s going to be a bit of a pain in the ass (Whoops! That’s a dollar for me!) at first, but it will be worth it if you want the swearing to stop.

I hope this helps, and good luck!

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