Swear words and kids

Have you ever noticed how many of our swear words have to do with sex and private parts?

Most of us use swear words rarely, reserving them for moments when we really need to get someone’s attention.  Since it’s so far outside our norms to talk about sex, private parts, or excretion, those words really stand out.  Maybe that’s how we got here.

“In its older, more literal sense, “profanity” refers to a lack of respect for things that are held to be sacred, which implies anything inspiring deserving of reverence.”  That’s a quote from Wikipedia.  Sex and private parts are sacred and deserve reverence.  Let that contradiction sink in for a moment.

Explaining to your child about swear words is often a sex-ed conversation. 

So what do you say if your child asks what “the F word” means?

As with all questions, take a moment to calm yourself before answering.  Stall a bit by acknowledging your child’s question (“I wondered about that too when I was your age…”) and dig for context.  Why are they asking that question?  What do they think it means?  Decide if the circumstances are right for this conversation, and if they are, answer truthfully and briefly.

Anger vs. Degradation

Beyond defining the word, this is a great opportunity to talk about anger and nuance.  If that’s too much for your young child, you can skip it, but your pre-teen or adolescent is hungry for these discussions.

Some people use swear words casually, and then they lose their power to express strong feelings, but for most of us, saying “Fuck You!” is a very strong statement of anger and frustration.  Often we do this for shock value, to get people’s attention that something is really wrong.  As with all angry outbursts, it stems from a feeling of powerlessness and a need to reassert control.  If you can help that person feel heard and powerful, you can turn that anger, and maybe towards good.

When not used in anger, “Fuck” means to have sex, but in a selfish, disconnected way.  It’s the opposite of making love or having a spiritual connection – it’s all about one person’s pleasure.  On top of that, it’s usually used in a degrading way, as a way to take control of someone else’s body, as if they don’t have a right to their body and feelings.

Keeping it a discussion, not lecture

After you’ve given your one minute answer, connect it back to your child’s context.  Ask your child a question: “Have you ever felt powerless and angry?” or “Has anyone ever treated you like your body or feelings didn’t matter?”  See if you can get a discussion going based on your child’s experiences.

What about a kid who’s swearing all the time?  They’re likely venting anger or seeking attention (or both!).  Giving them your warm attention is always going to help.  If the swearing bothers you, set a limit and model healthy boundaries.

How does this feel?  Is it doable?  Comment below…

In support of you,


P.S. If you’d like my input about something happening in your unique family, click here to schedule a call with me.

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3 Comments. Leave new

  • Molly Mekjavich
    April 19, 2018 8:51 am

    Thanks for this post! This article doesn’t necessarily relate to talking with children about profanity, but really helped me solidify my thinking around my own use of profanity:

    • This is so timely for us. We have been holding an ongoing discussion about swear words since kindergarten, trying to educate on meaning before the wrong information gets shared by an uninformed peer. Our nine year old son is now very interested in how it feels to use swear words, and has been testing them out with a wink at home. I want him to be able to try them out without a big reaction to disarm the power, but I find myself becoming uncomfortable -like a line is being crossed. Tricky stuff! Also, great article link Molly!

  • This post has helped me as a teacher of teens also. The swearing itself doesn’t bother me much when I put aside the shock at hearing it, and acknowledge the possible reasons that child is swearing. If I do that I can respond to the real issues.


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