Parents often complain that their children morphed overnight into drunken sailors – not because they found a parrot and a bottle of booze in their kids’ rooms, but because the kids started cursing.

For many parents, this is more vexing than funny. They think it makes them look like bad parents. They think it’s the first misstep on a slippery road of behavioral issues. They’re afraid someone will drop an F-bomb in front of Grandma, and then all hell will break loose.

Sorry. I should’ve said, “heck.”

Cursing is a reality of the world around us. Kids hear it on TV, with their friends, at school, from relatives, and even just walking down the street. It’s impossible to keep kids from hearing these colorful, um, adjectives. So how can you make sure your kids don’t become masters of invectives? Here are a few tips:

— Don’t overreact. If you make a big deal out of cussing, your children know what button to push when they want to annoy you, get your attention, or both. Simply say something like, “It’s not ok to do that. I expect better from you.” That sets a firm boundary without feeding the behavior.

— Notice when your children aren’t cussing and praise them for it. It’s important to notice when your child is doing the right thing. Use phrases like, “I noticed you haven’t cussed for awhile. That makes me proud.” If you’d like to reinforce that, add something like, “That made me so happy that I’d like to play a game with you.” Reward the behavior you like, and you’ll see more of it.

— Some parents use a “cussing jar.” (Say a cuss word, drop a coin in the jar.) If that works for you, go ahead and use it. But if it doesn’t work, it’s probably because it gives attention to the cussing, which makes it more likely to increase.

— Be a good role model. Often, kids are just repeating words they learned at home. (Think of Ralphie in “A Christmas Story.”) If you’ve cursed in front of your children, don’t be too hard on yourself; most parents have (including me). But if you want your children to be more conscious of what they’re saying, you should be, too. And if you slip up? Don’t make a big deal out of it. Just apologize, thereby being a role model for what the kids should do when they make a mistake.

— Age makes a difference. Teens are more likely to curse, especially if they think it’s cool (doubly so if they know it bothers you). The same tips from earlier apply, but it’s even more important not to overreact. Remember, teens are looking for ways to rebel against you.

— Decide if cussing is something you want to ignore. Some parents don’t pick this battle, saving attention for issues that matter more to them. The attention principle applies: behaviors that you ignore should eventually reduce or vanish, especially if you’re praising the behaviors that you like. Other parents choose to make a stand against cursing, hoping to prevent their kids from rebelling with more extreme behaviors by setting a consistent boundary about cussing. There’s no right or wrong; the key is to be consistent and predictable.

— Whichever happens, don’t take it personally. Often, we think we’ve failed when our kids cuss, especially in public. Be gentle with yourself. If your kid drops a verbal bomb in public, look around the room and ask yourself, “How many parents here never had that happen?” You’ll realize that you’re in a very large club of parents.

(Carl Grody, LISW-S, is in private practice at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington, Ohio. He specializes in child, adolescent, and family therapy, and he’s also a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program. For an appointment with Carl, call 614-477-5565.)

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