You hit the nail on the head when you described your child’s foul language as “a bad habit.” That’s exactly what profanity is for the vast majority of people who use it – a mindless, meaningless, automatic, “knee-jerk” variety of speech, picked up from the behavior of others and reinforced through imitation and constant repetition. Do you and your spouse swear in unguarded moments? If so, you’ll have to face up to your own language problem before you can deal effectively with your son’s.
We realize, of course, that there are many other places where kids can be exposed to this kind of speech – on the schoolyard or the playground, in movies, television programs and video games, from books, magazines and the conversation of friends. Although parents can’t completely shield their children from every negative influenced, it’s still their duty to regulate their media habits, and oversee their social interactions so as to foster positive values and encourage virtue rather than vice. If you want to eliminate your child’s negative speech patterns, take steps to keep him away from negative influences.
You should also explore what are the underlying causes of his behavior. What is it that’s motivating him to use these words, especially in your presence? Is his speech intended to shock you? If so, then a shocked reaction will only reinforce the behavior. Is it a symptom of rebellion? An expression of anger? A reaction to feelings of rejection? A way of compensating for an inner sense of powerlessness? In that case, it might be wise to ignore the language for a moment and cut straight to the heart of the matter by dealing with the deeper emotions. You may be able to draw some of this information out of your child if you can find a time to sit down with him – when he’s calm, collected, and in a good mood – and ask him some gentle but strategic questions about school, his social life, and how he feels about his relationship with you.
Eventually you’ll want to make the point that profane language is inappropriate in polite society and completely out of bounds for anyone who desires to live as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Teach your son what the Scripture means when it says, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29); or “[Let] neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting [be named among you], which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks” (Ephesians 5:4). Make it clear that he is expected to live by these standards as long as he is in your home. If he refuses to cooperate, apply appropriate consequences – for example, the loss of television, computer or video game privileges for a predetermined period of time.
You may also wish to encourage appropriate speech through a program of positive reinforcement. There are many ways to do this. Here’s one practical suggestion. Place a glass jar in a prominent place and allow your child to put a marble in the jar every time he resists the urge to use profanity or substitutes a helpful, meaningful word for a destructive swear word. Then, when the jar is full, you can celebrate by planning a family outing or devising a creative way to get involved in serving friends and neighbors as a parent-child team. This will involve the entire family in the process of re-shaping your child’s language.
Give us a call if you’d like to discuss these concepts with one of our counselors. They’d be happy to listen to your concerns and discuss your situation with you over the phone.
When Your Teen Curses: Dr. Kevin Leman advises parents on how to respond when their child uses profanity.
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Effective Biblical Discipline