Kids cuss behind the teacher’s back. And the playground is the opportune place for potty-mouth. No adults listening. That’s what children tell me—the ones that are upset by swear words. Offensive language is common language in some homes and taboo in others.

Toddlers start out by mimicking words and phrases. They don’t know what words are taboo and what words aren’t until a shocked parent reacts. What a way to get mom or dad’s attention! In a study lead by researcher Timothy Jay in the American Journal of Psychology, children ages 3 to 5 had a vocabulary of 30 to 40 taboo words, ranging from traditional swear words to words like jerk, stupid and poop-head.

Recently, a fourth-grader told me a classmate gave the teacher the middle finger—the teacher had her back turned. A few kids chuckled.

A third-grader related how the new playground cussword is “frick.” It’s meant to substitute for the other “f-word.” On the bus, in hallways, in the lunchroom, and anywhere out of earshot of adults—kids are swearing. Saying “fudge” is out and “frick” is in.

Why do elementary school-aged kids swear? To get attention, to be funny, to fit in, to impress peers, to prove independence, and out of frustration or anger. And to be sneaky little humans.  Kids without media restrictions are likely to bring vulgar language to school. And parents that cuss are teaching their kids to cuss.

What’s a parent to do? Ban bad words inside and outside of home. Allow dirty words at home, but not at school. Ignore or go with the flow. Or discuss and discipline as needed.


In the movie, A Christmas Story, Ralphie swears (by accident) while helping his dad change a flat tire. The cursing father wondered where Ralphie learned that bad word. Ralphie received an old school punishment—washing away the dirty word with a bar of soap. However, that chastisement is considered abusive and I agree.

The American Academy of Pediatrics contend that exposure to profanity encourages aggression. Teens exposed to profanity in television and video games are more likely to use profanity themselves, a known risk factor for increased physical and relational aggression, according to a 2011 study.

Do adults have issues with swearing? “Certainly everyone knows the same swear words. As suggested, lots of developmental and social factors determine how frequently people swear. Younger adults do indeed swear more, as do men. Another question concerns whether swearing has increased over the years, and although there has been little longitudinal research, preliminary evidence suggests that incidence of swearing is relatively stable,” surmised Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., in a 2012 article in Psychology Today.

Part of our culture glamorizes foul language: rappers and celebrities to name common culprits. Music and movies push the ratings out of orbit.

“You don’t have to just accept TV’s declining standards with respect to foul-language. Write to the network and to the sponsors of the program. The Parents Television Council provides resources to help you take action. If the networks and sponsors are put on notice, they will likely make more of an effort with future broadcasts to edit out the offending language. By contrast, if they hear from no one, they will likely only continue to loosen the reins.”

And a plethora of politicians can be caught cussing. President Trump is known for dropping the f-bomb.

According to data from GovPredict, the rate at which politicians in Congress and state legislatures use expletives on social media has risen. “Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, leads Congress with 41 uses of profanity. He’s followed in the Senate by Montana Democrat Jon Tester, with seven; Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, with six; and New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, with six. In the House, Missouri Democrat Lacy Clay leads with 37. But the politician with the most colorful Twitter feed is Sherry Frost, a Democrat in New Hampshire’s state House who has used words from the list 415 times since 2014.”

We now live in a society of potty-mouth. And profanity is trickling down onto playgrounds across America.

Melissa Martin, PhD, is an author, columnist, educator, and therapist. She lives in Southern Ohio.

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