First there was the sound of 3-year-old feet running. Then a thud. Finally, Paul Nimmo heard a very audible swear word roll off his child's tongue.
After running to make sure his son was OK, he was ready to react.
"Initially, it was funny,'' he said. "Then I wanted to get mad.''
In the end, he neither laughed nor yelled.
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Experts say parents have the biggest influence on children's use of language. But how parents react to a child's cursing depends on a child's age and the circumstances in which the offending word is uttered, as well as parents' own personal codes of behavior.
Nimmo realized there was no way he could punish the boy for using words he'd probably used himself in similar situations.
"All you can do is use positive reinforcement,'' he says, and explain why the word in question shouldn't be uttered. And while you're at it, he adds, apologize for mommy's and daddy's occasional blue language.
"Our children look to parents and adults as examples,'' Nimmo says. Kids aren't able to tell the difference between a good habit and a bad one unless adults offer an explanation, he adds.
"That is our responsibility,'' he says.
WHAT'S IN A WORD?
Kids mimic the nasty words they hear -- whether the words come from parents, grandparents, peers or popular music. But the most powerful role models are those at home, says Timothy Jay, a psychology professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts who has dedicated his academic career to the study of cursing. He is the author of several books on the subject, including Cursing in America' and What to Do When Your Kids Talk Dirty.
"An infant is so interested in a parent's emotional expression,'' he says.
When an upset parent uses a swear word, even a young child knows that "this is a powerful expression.''
Younger children might repeat anything they hear without registering meaning, but older children begin to recognize the shock value of cursing.
It may take a child awhile, maybe until age 8 or 9, to develop a moral sense of what is a "good'' or "bad'' word, Jay says.
"There are no universals about what is offensive,'' he says. "What a word means is entirely dependent on the relationship between the two people who use it.''
Words can also gain and lose shock value over time. He notes that in the past, obscenity laws dealt more with blasphemy and religious expressions.
Now, the focus is on sexual content.
Some words that cause parental jaws to drop may be seen as only mildly wicked to their kids.
"If you overuse the stuff, it loses its significance,'' Jay says. "You get satiated with it.''
ACTION AND REACTION
Some parents choose to ignore children's foul language and hope it will go away. Others deliver a calm "We don't use those words in our house'' lecture.
Marie Wacht of Tacoma calls herself "an aging hippy dippy feminist.'' When it came to language usage, she set broad but firm boundaries for her sons, now ages 22 and 25.
"My sons learned cursing from preschool and the playgrounds at school,'' she says. "I told them it was OK as long as it did not include female body parts. I really wanted them to respect women, and they do.''
Is cursing by kids on the upswing? Parents and teachers think so.
Paula Leitz, associate professor of education at Pacific Lutheran University and a veteran of 25 years in the classroom, says foul language surrounds kids today.
"The kinds of movies and music they can listen to has changed dramatically,'' she says. "When you hear a word used over and over and over in any context, you become immune to the impact those words may have. You lose sensitivity.''
Jay, the Massachusetts professor, has conducted surveys of kids' cursing. In 1989, he sent research assistants into schools, recreation centers and day-care centers to write down the unsavory words used by children 12 and under. The list of the most popular curse words kids use -- especially one that starts with F -- might shock some adults.
Jay is currently updating the research, to see what's changed over the years. The new study is not yet complete, but some trends are already emerging.
While boys were the prevalent users of offensive language in the 1989 study, "girls are closing the gap,'' Jay says.
Although complete data isn't in yet, Jay theorizes that his new study will find younger kids using more offensive words earlier.
"We've got a generation raised on The Simpsons' and 'South Park,'‚'' he says.
But Jay, who has testified as an expert witness in sexual harassment cases and other cases involving language usage, is not in favor of censorship.
He sees cursing as a kind of catharsis, as well as an interesting and creative part of language.
"We have been trying to stop swearing for 1,000 years and what has it done? Nothing,'' he says.
While he doesn't argue for media censorship, he does think adults should set some boundaries for kids.
A teacher has the ability to set standards in the classroom, and teachers should prevent kids from using language that interferes with learning, he says.
Parents can teach children that their language can offend other people.
"You have to be responsible for what you say,'' he says.
HELP FOR FOUL MOUTHSParents and educators offer this advice for cleaning up your kids' language:
Make rules. Be specific and tell kids which words are not acceptable.
Watch your own mouth. Where do you think kids hear this stuff first?
Don't overreact. If you freak out, your child will learn how to push your buttons by using the offensive language. Instead, explain why a word is not acceptable, and what the consequences will be if it's used again.
While it's tempting to laugh at little ones who pop off with a cuss word, don't. They'll take it as a positive signal and they'll want to perform for you again.
Accentuate the positive. When you hear your children express themselves without cursing, tell them you're proud of them for not resorting to negative language.
Explain how vulgar language can limit your options in life. You might tell teens, for example, that while their peers might approve of cuss words, their boss probably won't.