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AMY (age 13):
I have a habit that my parents hate. I use swear words. This is something the kids do at my school and I picked up on it. Don’t get me wrong, I am a pretty nice kid and I do okay in school. I don’t smoke or stay out late and I usually try to do what my parents tell me to do. I don’t use this language in front of my parents, but my dad heard me talking to a friend on the telephone and he yelled at me and told me that was disgusting and made me look bad.
I don’t think it makes me look bad plus I have heard them swear too. It should not matter one way or another.

I cannot believe my daughter would talk like this. She is such a nice kid. She says they do it all the time at school and when she is out with her friends. I think this behavior reflects poorly on my wife and myself. We are good parents and love our daughter. We try extra hard to treat her with respect, but this is not acceptable.
I have no idea what to do about this. I could ground her but I know this is a habit and habits are hard to break.

Dear Amy and her Dad,
Have you talked together about Amy’s new disagreeable vocabulary? Amy, you seem to have some idea of the inappropriateness of cursing in polite society, in which your parents are apparently members. How committed are you to talking like your peers do? Off-color words may add spice or emotional tone to teen conversation that the peer group can relate to and call their own. Teens are not generally developed enough to express their thoughts and feelings in eloquent language, although this might be something to eventually aspire to. Usually Dad, this type of speech does not become a permanent habit but is a phase or an experiment with trying something that sounds, albeit on the surface, cool and grown up. Kids often model what they hear at home as well as in their own peer groups and, so, if you, Dad, curse upon occasion, it might help to think about what this does for your own expressive ability and where you learned it.

I doubt that Amy’s cursing reflects badly on her upbringing. It seems clear that she knows that her behavior is unacceptable to you and she knows better than to engage in it in front of you. I wonder if you’re worried about what else she is capable of doing as a teenager that is socially unacceptable or could cause harm to Amy and/or the family.

I would suggest an approach that encourages open communication without criticism. You can tell her that cursing is not something the family values and why you feel this way. Listen to her side. Amy will have to make much more difficult decisions as she navigates adolescence and the best support you can give her is to feel that she can come to you to discuss her issues without fear of punishment or attacks on her judgement. Remember that teens try all kinds of things and most of them (miraculously) come out whole in the end. Amy seems to know the difference between serious misbehavior and trying out something a bit naughty but not destructive and she says that she tries to do what she knows is important to you. By talking openly, Amy can learn to make good judgements and you, her parents, can learn to trust her ability to do so or to ask for assistance (not doctrine) when she is unsure of the road.

I am not saying that there ought not to be rules. When a teen’s safety or health is involved, it is a parent’s responsibility to point out the risks and head off potential disasters even if this incurs the wrath of your child. However, there is a wide margin between acting up a little and disaster and that’s where the learning can take place.

Good luck to both of you as you start this complex process.

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