"It's no use," said my friend Connie on Easter Monday. "When it comes to the in-laws, there are certain things that brand you a Bad Mom, and this is one of them." The day before, during cleanup, her six-year-old daughter Emma had dropped the gravy boat on the kitchen floor. When it shattered, as gravy boats will do, the little girl cried, "Oh, shit!" Everyone was flabbergasted, including Connie. Grandma May glared at Connie all through dessert. Emma got the word from her brother William, 13. He got it from school. Connie's husband is away a lot, and she's not huge on discipline. She sought advice from me, and I turned around and sought it from some more expert sources.
Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology at SDSU, is the author of the recently published Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled -- and More Miserable -- Than Ever Before ( $25 at Barnes & Noble; www.generationme.org). "A lot of teenagers will swear just to try to shock their parents," she offered. "But these days, many young people swear because it's just the way they talk. It's more acceptable to swear now than it used to be."
Why? "People now are not as concerned with what others think of them. In a previous era, a person might think, 'If I swear, people are going to think that I sound uneducated, or uncouth.' But there's been a general social trend toward doing 'what's right for you' rather than 'what's right for other people, for society, or for the group.' There's lots of data, both scientific and anecdotal, to support the idea that American culture has moved much more toward individuality in the last few decades. And in the last five to ten years, it's been accelerated by a lot of media trends. You don't have to listen to an album anymore; you can mix the music however you want on your iPod. You don't have to watch a television show when it airs; you can TiVo it. People call it iMedia."
Twenge thinks that "swearing is part of that social trend. People want to express themselves in this way, and don't really care what other people think when they do it." Further, "there's a trend toward being more casual. You have more informality in dress now, and more informality in speech. People call each other by their first names."
So much for where it came from; what to do about it? Twenge suggested that Connie "help the kid gain a perspective on other people's impressions. If no one cared what other people thought of them, this world would be unlivable. In getting along in the world, one of the most important things is the impression you're making on others. And for both kids and adults, to have good relationships with other people is the bedrock of mental health."
I also talked to Dr. Tom, my friend Dee's father-in-law. Dr. Tom is a developmental psychologist, specializing in the moral development of children. He started with little ones like Emma, and worked up the age ladder to William. "Parents are usually shocked when they hear the first vulgar language coming from their angelic-looking preschooler, but it's all part of verbal experimentation. However, that doesn't mean you should accept it. I don't agree with the notion, 'If you ignore it, it will go away.' It's true that kids are usually doing it for attention, but for one thing, it's almost impossible to ignore it, especially under circumstances where it's embarrassing. And for another, ignoring bad language deprives kids of something they very much need for their moral development: clear social feedback when their behavior is inappropriate. Bad language is unacceptable because other people don't like to hear it -- or, put positively, polite people don't talk that way in front of others. Needless to say, to make that stick, we have to watch our own language." If explanations aren't enough, "you can add a consequence: a negative consequence, like loss of a privilege; or sometimes a positive consequence that makes up for the lapse. One family had a jobs jar -- you drew a slip of paper with a job on it to make up for the problem you had caused."
Like Twenge, Dr. Tom encouraged the idea of getting older kids like William to be more reflective. "You want them to realize that language is a social act. They have a responsibility to be sensitive to people who are affected by their speech. They might say that it's no big deal if they talk this way with their friends, because that's the way everybody talks. You want them to realize that language that becomes a matter of habit with friends is easily generalized to other environments. These days, kids carry bad language into the classroom -- they're using it in the hallways, and they continue to talk that way once they enter class. Even if they try to inhibit it, it slips out during group work, or when they're making journal entries."
And if a kid says, "That's just the way I talk"? "A good question to ask is, 'Are there any situations where you don't use bad language?' In fact, there are lots of situations where kids watch their language, consciously or unconsciously. They don't use the f-word at their grandfather's funeral, or in a job interview. They use a certain kind of speech when they want to make a good impression. If you ask them why they don't swear in those situations, they'll say, 'It wouldn't be respectful.' So they realize that some language is respectful and other language is not."
Finally, he suggested teaching a child that "language reveals a person's character -- and it also shapes it. Coarse language, over time, creates a coarse person. And if you don't develop the habit of controlling your language, bad words will come out in situations that make the situation worse. In college, some students use bad language when confronted by university police, and the situation escalates very quickly."