What to do when kids swear or say OMG…

Swearing and OMG (1)

“S#*t,” “Oh My G-d.” …or “What the _____?” We’ve heard from numerous parents that this kind of language hurts their ears as well as their hearts. If this is a struggle in your family, here’s how you might respond through the Connected Families framework.

“You are SAFE with me!”

To communicate emotional safety while addressing your kids’ word choices means coming alongside them as their understanding helper instead of their judge (they can tell the difference!). Are your kids worried they won’t fit in? Do they even know what the words mean?

In the same way, it’s helpful to understand what might be behind your angst when your kids say offensive words. Consider these questions:

  • Do I feel hurt when my requests for respectful language are ignored?
  • Am I worried people might think less of my kids (and me) because of how they talk?
  • Am I worried about my child’s level of faith and possible future choices?

Separating out anxiety or embarrassment from the conversation is an important aspect of being safe. With this insight, parents can then prepare for the discussion with a quick prayer, “Lord, help me be gentle in my effort to teach and train my child.” This helps parents stay inquisitive and relaxed rather than judging and demanding.

You are LOVED – no matter what you say.”

Once calm and curious, parents are more able to think clearly and can decide to approach the conversation in light-hearted,empathetic ways, like, “Wow! You have some strong feelings about this.” Or, “That’s an interesting word choice. Tell me what’s behind that.” When my kids used to frequently say, “I HATE….so and so or such and such,” I would say in a rather Yoda-like way, “Hmmm, Hate. A strong and dangerous emotion. Other words have you?” Over time as our kids felt joined and understood, they learned to use more constructive words.

If your kids are feeling pressured by peer culture to use crass or irreverent words, you can have a relaxed conversation – What are your kids worried about? Empathize and share the ups and downs of your experiences feeling pressure to fit in with others.   

[To learn how to strengthen your child’s resilience to rejection from others, read Helping Kids Thrive Despite Rejection From a Teacher or Students.]

Sometimes it’s entirely appropriate to be passionate and firm when talking about word choices with your kids, but it’s essential to discern: “How can I be sure to make my unconditional love land on my child’s heart, even though I feel strongly about this?”

“You are CALLED and CAPABLE.”

Communicating to our kids, “You are safe and loved” makes it easy to say things like, “You have a strong opinion and I’m wondering how you could express it in more honoring ways?” Or, “Heyo, are you meaning to start praying now? Want me to join? Or maybe you were meaning to say something else.” Keep it fun and light as you guide your child toward making better choices. When you do, it lays the groundwork for a more serious conversation about taking responsibility for more honoring language.

Many times, children don’t yet value our wonderful calling to use words to be a blessing. Ephesians 4:29 says, “Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building up the one in need and bringing grace to those who listen.” How can you give more effort to teaching this concept and noticing the impact when your kids use respectful words?

[To help your kids value words of blessing, read the post My Kids Made Me Late – And It Was Totally Worth It.]

“You are RESPONSIBLE for your actions and your words.”

When kids use God’s name in vain or coarse language, there are natural impacts in play. Words either build others up or hurt or offend them. I learned how to teach natural impacts with grace one day when leading a wilderness trip for a group of high-risk teens. Rough language was part of every conversation for them, particularly the misuse of the Lord’s name. I kept telling them to stop using that language, and they’d stop for a bit, but then forget. Our guide, Kathleen finally chimed in confidently. “Hey, my friends,” gently smiling, “I’ve been listening to you use God’s name and I thought you’d want to know how that impacts me.” She waited. The teens got quiet. “I know it’s probably normal for you to talk that way, but I just want you to know that hearing God’s name used in an uncaring way hurts my heart because I love God very much. I just thought you’d want to know.”

I hardly heard those words used again for the next five days – because they were internally motivated to respect Kathleen. They took real responsibility because they understood the natural impact.

Coarse language provides a great opportunity to teach kids awareness of who you are with and their needs. (Know your audience). Share a time you said something coarse or critical you regretted, that was heard by an unintended person, and what impact that had. Kids are far more open to hear about what we learned when we messed up than they are about how they should get it perfect just like us! Then you can ask,  “What different kinds of people are within earshot when you say those words?” If you lead with humility, you can usually have an open conversation about how it might affect those listening to your kids.

Matthew 12:34 says, “…the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” You can also share what your verbal slip revealed about your heart, and how you dealt with that. (Know yourself.) This helps kids be thoughtful when you ask, “What’s going on under the surface that sparks the words you are using? I care more about your heart than your words.”

Despite our best efforts to communicate these four important messages, our children can choose to use words of which we don’t approve. Making this issue a battleground is often more destructive than helpful. Parents can instead choose to be peaceful, model honoring word choices, and focus on the Yeses – what we do as Christ-followers instead of the “No’s”/don’ts. Kids who understand God’s wonderful grace and their calling to a life of significance begin to make more honoring word choices.

Daniel was in middle school when the word “gay” was used flippantly to mean either homosexual or weird/odd. He used the term frequently with the latter meaning in an attempt to fit in with his peers. It grated on our ears and we addressed it numerous times, encouraging him to be honoring of all people. This habit continued for quite some time, but we kept our focus on God’s love and Daniel’s calling to be a blessing to others. As this identity took root, he grew to have an incredibly deep compassion for people, be very careful to make honoring word choices, and live his life to be an agent of God’s blessing.

My Response:

  1. How can I help my children gain wisdom about the natural impacts of their choices, and the factors that may be causing them to use offensive words?
  2. How can I keep my focus on the “Yeses” of God’s grace and my kids’ calling to be a blessing in all that they do?

To learn more practical tips just like this, download the ebook Four Consequences That Actually Work.