Gone are the days when a parent would threaten to wash a child’s mouth out with soap for using a “four-letter word.” Many of today’s teens and tweens sprinkle their everyday conversation with language our mothers would tell us was “right out of the gutter,” and they don’t know what parents are getting so upset about.
Sam, a freshman at a Brooklyn high school, and his friend “Mark,” from an Upper West Side Manhattan high school, found it humorous that an adult would even care, saying, “So long as adults are not present, what does it matter?”
“Youthologist” Vanessa Van Petten, author of “You’re Grounded! How to stop fighting and make the teenage years easier,” and founder of the Radical Parenting blog written by teens, tells me such language has “been normalized,” and that there is a definite generational difference in the way our teens express themselves.
What is the cause?
Opinions vary as to the biggest influence on our teens’ colorful language. Van Petten points to pop culture and digital media as the main culprits for making this speech, which was once isolated to particular demographics, commonplace nationally. She also blames YouTube, where celebrities post videos replete with curse words, absent of content regulation.
It is hard to ignore the fact that the F-word is used with abandon in songs and popular films, such as “The Wolf of Wall Street” (506 times). The “Fockers” trilogy was a huge hit, as audiences delighted in quasi F-word humor. When Bono used the word to express excitement at the 2003 Golden Globes, the Federal Communications Commission initially let it slide, saying its use was “fleeting” and wasn’t used in a sexual content. They later reversed their decision, condemning his utterance, along with similar award show slips by Cher and Nicole Ritchie.
In the 2005 documentary, “F—,” radio show host Dennis Prager gives kids more credit, saying they know the difference between Hollywood and its fantasy world of movies and their own homes.
Journalism analyst David Shaw, who also appears in the film, attributed young people’s indelicate language acquisition to the people around them: family members and friends, saying they hear it in backyards, placing the responsibility squarely on parents to protect kids. He said it is contagious, like a virus.
Kids do it to be more “adult-like, cool or popular,” but, as kids use the words more and more frequently, they lose their initial impact, says Phillip, a Queens high school junior.
Brooklyn social worker Lori Hiller says that teens will “try on” language as they would different personalities, hairstyles, and clothing. She also says teens may use it to fit in, like on a neighborhood basketball court, where such words may make sense for the moment.
“It’s lazy language,” according to James O’Connor, founder of Cuss Control Academy. He says it is easier to fall back on those words, which are really not descriptive, and encourages teens to replace curses with alternative expressions, explaining that the word “s—” could easily be replaced with “manure,” “garbage,” “trouble,” or “rotten.”
The ‘normalization’ of foul language
Van Petten references “the normalization” of expressions which used to be considered bad language, such as “kick a–” or “s—– day.” She said they now appear regularly in blog posts and are basically part of the lexicon.
It seems as if the F-word is no longer considered profane in teen circles, and its colloquial use is not meant to be offensive. Phillip explains, “It’s a common word,” saying that it is used “not in a way to be rude, it’s just a normal adjective.”
“Patrick,” a middle schooler from Queens, says his peers use it thoughtlessly, and “They don’t mean what they say.” All the teens I spoke with tell me they are not particularly impressed by its usage and are actually annoyed when it is overused by their friends.
Some teens who are hesitant to curse out loud curse freely on social media. Hiller warns teens that what they write in cyberspace will stay with them, and colleges and prospective employers might access them. Even their own friends could be offended reading posted expletives without context and inflection.
O’Connor recognizes that eliminating swearing altogether is unrealistic.
“I would not say ‘Swearing is a bad thing, you should never do it,’ ” he told me by phone. “It is a part of the way we communicate.” O’Connor distinguishes between “casual” and “causal” usage of such words: the former “for the fun of it,” and the latter to vent frustration or anger. He says they are regularly used “as meaningless modifiers” by chronic complainers and whiners.
Van Petten also tells teens that use of the F-word word as a mere adjective is still not excusable, if the time and place is inappropriate. Even in casual use, it can be viewed as crude, and if the teen is uncertain of how it will be received, it is best to refrain.
Is it hypocritical to tell teens not to curse?
In the documentary, Hollywood director Kevin Smith says that it is too hypocritical never to curse, but that people can choose not to do it at home.
Van Petten is not troubled by the potential hypocrisy, as most adults limit their cursing to certain arenas. She advises teens to be aware of their surroundings and be extra careful not to let loose in public areas where it would be considered crass and disrespectful, such as restaurants, trains, and sidewalks, and in front of adults and young children. She says the key is the teen’s ability to learn how to moderate language, “to turn it on or off,” depending on the environment, and that this is a skill every young adult needs to master.
Shocked as I was by my own teen’s language, I understood that I would not be able to monitor it all the time. So, although I was not pleased that he would curse at all, I told him I never wanted to hear it, but that I would not know if he cursed if he was alone with his peers.
Some parents still prefer to tell their teens to refrain from cursing entirely, and commit to never use such language themselves, so that their rules are not inconsistent with their practice.
“Molly,” a high school sophomore from Forest Hills, feels that her mother is backwards and out of touch with today’s world because she doesn’t curse.
Hiller recognizes that parents who never curse within earshot of their children are creating “an artificial world” for them. She tells parents not to be ashamed if a curse word slips out occasionally in front of their teens, because they hear these words every day outside of the home. She does not condone inappropriate or excessive cursing, but she recommends parents think about how much of a bubble they want to place around their kids.
How to break the habit
Van Petten says it is habit forming, and teens get used to it. Moreover, it can be a difficult habit to get rid of, just like an unwanted regional accent. She called it “muscle memory” — a type of reflex response.
O’Connor agrees, saying that once it becomes ingrained, there is a greater chance that it can slip out at the wrong time: in front of a boss or teacher. Like any bad habit, it will take a concentrated effort to break, he says.
When my kids were little, I docked them a nickel or a dime for each curse word. It was fairly effective.
Russell Barkley and Arthur Robin, authors of “Your Defiant Teen,” recommend a rewards and punishment system, using money or points to condition tweens and teens to restrain their speech — but its effectiveness is not so clear for this age group.
Van Petten, who has worked with hundreds of teens, says it is best not to get hung up on “nickel and diming” tweens and teens, because it just does not work. She found that even fining them as much as $1 to $5 still backfires: it may curtail the cursing, but creates more animosity. Teens and tweens do not want to be controlled.
O’Connor wrote “Cuss Control” in 2000 to help people curtail their cursing, relying on anger-control and coping strategies, and suggesting teens find alternative words to express frustration. He points out that there are roughly 900,000 words in the English language and 30 basic swear words, recommending replacement phrases like “holy smoke” or “fiddlesticks.” Unfortunately, these phrases won’t cut it anymore, and it is difficult to find peer-accepted alternatives, as most teens care more about fitting in than starting new trends.
Van Petten points out that parents need to pick their battles. Don’t lecture tweens and teens, but instead, let them know it is their own personal choice. It may be difficult for some parents to change gears from earlier patterns of preaching at their child to talking to their adolescent as they would an adult, but it will be more effective.
She believes it is more important to teach teens that they need to communicate in a respectful way, which hopefully will not include curses. She tells parents to explain to teens that constant cursing in the wrong company makes them appear unintelligent and crude, giving a negative impression to people who might then choose to disassociate from them.
Van Petten says teens should practice refraining from cursing around their parents, so that they don’t accidentally use the offensive language at the wrong time.
Parents feel responsible for guiding their adolescents’ behavior, even though it gets harder to control the actions of older and oft rebellious offspring. They should discount their teen’s seemingly automatic response, which likely starts with “at least I’m not…” (insert: “doing drugs,” “drinking,” “killing people,” or other serious infraction), and take some time to explain the importance of language. Parents of teens may indeed have to face more serious issues, but the words we all use still have an impact and our teens need to know that.
Risa C. Doherty is an award-winning freelance journalist who parented two teens. Read more at www.risadoherty.com or follow her on Twitter @risadoherty.