According to cognitive linguist Steven Pinker, in his book The Stuff of Thought, cussing—or at least loud vocal outbursts when feeling escalated emotions—is innate. The actual sounds blended together by a person to express their emotions is learned and culturally specific.
I acquired this knowledge after years of telling my wife to be mindful of our children’s ears when choosing to use the sounds of F-CK, SH-T, and B-TCH combined, and shortly after my daughter came home telling us her friend gets to say F-CK at home.
This coincided with my daughter’s increase in emotional volatility. Inevitably, a month or so later she began effectively utilizing the same sound combinations to express her anger that my wife does.
Our eight year old navigates her emotions around the house with loud outbursts of “h-ll”, “sh-t,” “f-ck,” and “b-tch.”
If this sounds familiar to you and you’d prefer fudge, shoot, heck, and booger keep reading.
Noam Chomsky, the prolific linguistics researcher, regularly talks about power and the use of language as a weapon to exert power. That is precisely what we are doing when we shout out our preferred expletives.
Sometimes it’s because we feel a loss of power; other times, particularly in the case of my daughter, those expletives are to demonstrate power. For example, she says, “Sister, stop being a b-tch!” when her five-year-old sister won’t share a toy. My five year old quickly learned the connotations of “b-tch” and so when she hears it she breaks into tears and gives my older daughter what she wants. That is one of many examples, but they all serve the same immediate function; to feel more power and control.
A month into my daughter’s newfound superpower, after reading psychology researcher Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book, How Emotions are Made, I discovered a method to combat such challenging behavior. Disrupt the power of the words and teach less abrasive outbursts.
My first instinct was to provide my daughter with the literal meaning of each word. That led to laughs, but it did not mitigate the cussing.
Going back to the drawing board, I decided to draw from my knowledge I developed as a preschool teacher. Based on my current research and past experiences I came up with the idea of turning every cuss word into an acrostic with the letters in the cuss word.
In her book, Barrett suggests that cuss words are often the outcome of people not having words that effectively communicate how they are feeling, or even conceptualize how they are feeling.
For example, most cuss words now represent a range of emotions. I feel very b-tchy or sh-tty. Furthermore, what I conceptualize as feeling b-tchy and my wife conceptualizes as feeling b-tchy are very different. And my daughter, who has much less experience with the word, has only as much understanding of cuss words than the feedback she receives when she says them or hears them being said.
One of Barrett’s central recommendations to improve the way we understand and express our emotions is to develop a larger vocabulary of emotional terminology. Herein lies my strategy for effectively addressing cussing.
To help children learn to effectively manage their emotions, they need the words.
And since my child, and I presume yours if you’re still reading, are already well versed in cuss words, let’s use them to our advantage, creating useful acrostics with other emotions, while at the same time remove the power the words give to children.
I mean, think about it. Saying Gosh darn it. This flipping poop makes me angry doesn’t quite have the same power as the collection of sounds most adults blurt out—and that children become very good at imitating.
I will provide a few examples, but I encourage you to brainstorm acrostics that work for you and your family. The words that are chosen must be understood by the adults and children. That said, this is an opportunity to expand everyone’s emotional vocabulary so include a couple of words that are uncommon.
Frustrated, Upset, Cranky, Keen: These are all words that can be used to summarize what we feel when the word f-ck is used. We are frustrated with the situation, upset by the current circumstances, cranky because of x, and keenly focused on what is bothering us most.
Example: She says, “What the f-ck?!” I respond, “I understand that you’re feeling frustrated, upset, cranky, and keen. What can I do to help you/I think you need to take a break,” or something else that is constructive.
Stressed, Hurt, Irritated, Tense: These are the four words that are the best fit for her when she uses the word. If we needed an acrostic for me when I say the word, it would be different. When x happens there’s a feeling like things aren’t going the desired way (stressed), it doesn’t feel good (hurt), it’s bothersome (irritated), and it needs to get back to normal before I say f-ck.
Example: She says, “Oh sh-t!” I respond, “I agree, this is a very stressful, hurtful, irritating and tense situation.” Again, keep it constructive.
Bitter, Insulting, Threatening, Cruel, Hostile: I will admit that my first acrostic for this word was intended solely to take the power away from the word. The initial acrostic was beautiful, intelligent, talented, courageous, and helpful. It really made my daughter angry when she called her sister a b-tch and I responded, “you’re right, she is very beautiful, talented, courageous, and helpful.” That turned the power around, but it doesn’t help develop her ability to manage her emotions.
Example: She says, “You’re being such a b-tch.” I respond, “I hear what you’re saying. You think I am acting bitter, insulting, threatening, cruel, and hostile. I’m going to take a break so that I don’t act like that anymore.”
As I said in the beginning, our need to scream out profanities is somewhat innate. As is the case when extinguishing a challenging behavior, we must replace it with something more desirable that serves a similar function for the child.
There are a few options. One is to opt for replacement words such as fudge, shoot, and booger. A second is to scream and then use the words in the acrostic to express the emotions. The third—what my family has chosen to do—is continue to use the cuss words, but frame them as a collection of mixed emotions. That seems to be the most effective, with evidence from our recent four-day stay with my in-laws and no cussing from my daughter.
Furthermore, both of my daughters have discovered the humor of the literal meaning of each word. Oh, the joys/challenges of life when we recognize that #OurChildrenAreListening.
What’s your take on what you just read? Comment below or write a response and submit to us your own point of view or reaction here at the red box, below, which links to our submissions portal.
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