Ask Dr. Gramma Karen: Grandmother Is Offended by Granddaughter’s Swearing

Recently, as a favor to my daughter-in-law, I started picking up my 11-year-old granddaughter and two of her friends after their sports practice and driving them home. Call me a prude, but I find the swearing these three girls do to be offensive, and the way they talk about sex is disgusting and makes them sound experienced. To test if I was overreacting, I had my husband ride with us one time. He was so embarrassed I thought he was going to pass out.

I talked with my daughter-in-law (DIL) about the girls’ swearing and sexually explicit conversations, but she laughed it off saying the girls are just expressing themselves and I should ignore them. We brought it up with our son, and even though his discomfort was apparent, he said dealing with these kinds of issues is “not in my job description” and that Bernice (our DIL) handles “the girl issues.”

What has happened to my sweet granddaughter?! My husband and I would appreciate some advice.

I appreciate you are worried that if your daughter and her friends talk trash that they will actually behave in trashy ways. Also, I understand you are feeling that something should be done about their swearing and you are not finding comfort in your daughter-in-law’s position to just ignore the girls’ foul language. Based on the extensive amount of research that has been done on swearing and cursing (Damn! Who knew? Extensive research on swearing!), both you and your DIL have valid responses.

According to Dr. Timothy Jay, a psychologist and world-renowned expert on cursing, swearing has been around from time immemorial, it is used by all social and economic classes, and certain words and phrases exist in almost all cultures and languages — captured most colorfully in George Carlin’s classic “Seven Dirty Words.” (No, I am not providing the link. You’re on your own.)

Further, Dr. Jay, Melissa Mohr, Dr. Richard Stephens, and other researchers contend that swearing has some positive utilitarian value, including: it allows for spontaneous, non-aggressive expression of anger and frustration; it can promote bonding and social inclusion; it can reduce group stress and tension, as with bawdy jokes and stories; it can help increase a tolerance for pain and discomfort, e.g., moms in delivery, banging one’s thumb with a hammer.

The data show that swearing emerges by age two. Although the research is not clear on the extent to which there is comprehension, youngsters do use intonation and gestures accurately, suggesting they know they are being naughty.

Imitation plays a strong role: The little boy in the picture was not born knowing how to express himself in this way! (Note: I do not know this boy. I got his picture off the Internet.)

What is known is that by the time children enter school, they have a working vocabulary of 30 to 40 potentially offensive words, ranging from mild ones to those capable of inducing blushing, much of it learned at the family dinner table!

With regard to the quantitative use of swearing, it is estimated that around 0.5% of words in typical everyday speech are swear words. Given an average rate of 15,000 words spoken in a day, this amounts to around 80 profanities expressed daily. So not only is the bad language your granddaughter and her friends is using normal, as adolescents, they happen to be in the age group that swears the most. A related concern is that adolescents and preteens are swearing more publicly than ever — especially at school, experts say. It is conversational swearing — in the hallways and in the classroom — that is on the rise, says Dr. Jay.

So what to do? Let’s start with what not to do. As tempting as it may be, punishment is not an answer, e.g., “If you use that word once more, you won’t go to the movies.”  In a 2006 study conducted by Dr. Jay, 94 percent of people who reported being punished for cussing continued to swear. Rather, the experts suggest teaching kids the etiquette of swearing. That is, don’t waste time on trying to eliminate swearing, but focus on helping kids learn when swearing and cursing are acceptable (with certain friends); unacceptable (can have legal ramifications, e.g., swearing at someone in a threatening way), and inappropriate (as with grandparents who have made it clear they find cursing and swearing offensive). This approach helps kids learn that the power of words is situational.

You and your husband can be instructive and helpful to your granddaughter and her friends by saying something along these lines: “You need to know that we are offended and uncomfortable when you swear and curse in our presence. We would appreciate you not doing that anymore. Do you understand?” Look them square in the eyes. Do not make any apologies, such as, “We’re sorry, but that’s how we feel about it.” You have nothing to be sorry about. You are not telling them not to swear, you are simply saying they are not to do it in your presence. If your granddaughter tells you that her mother doesn’t care, you simply tell her that that is between her and her mother. You can only tell her how it is to be between her and her friends and you and your husband.

If your DIL chooses to ignore their bad language in her presence, that is not your concern. She may have decided that hearing unfiltered what they are talking about in the back seat is more important to her than shutting down their bad language. Many a chauffeur-parent has made this trade off. In other words, she may find their swearing acceptable when driving them around, yet inappropriate under other circumstances. For you and your husband, it sounds like what will work best is to make it clear that you find bad language from your granddaughter and her friends inappropriate in your presence under all circumstances.

Regarding your concerns about how experienced the girls sound when they talk about sex, chances are they are all talk and are not actually sexually active. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System (YRBS), percentages of teens and younger who have had sex break down as follows: about 10 percent of 12-year-olds; 40 percent of 16-year-olds; about 80 percent of 19-year-olds.

To answer your question, “What has happened to my sweet granddaughter?”, rest assured she’s still there. She’s just trying her best to transition from a little girl to a young woman, and this requires lots of experimenting… and firm guidance from the important adults in her life.

Ask Dr. Gramma Karen is published every other Tuesday.

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Note: Gramma Karen is “going fishing.” She will be back in September. Meanwhile, she wishes everyone a safe and fun summer.

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