I use curse words. My favorite is fuck and various versions of it… fucker, fucking, shitfuck and my utmost favorite – unfuckwithable. I am not proud of my “potty mouth,” nor am I ashamed of it. It happens. And I know I am not alone. I have tried to quit, and sometimes, only a curse will do. When in the company of someone who would be offended by strong language, my words are chosen with care. As an adult, hopefully my intention and awareness supports this outcome. But as children in development, parents are the source for good manners and how we kindly relate to others.
When my son was around ten years old, he began to use poor words like the above and my spouse and I knew our parenting needed a boost. Our solution was instituting a curse jar. For every bad word spoken by anyone in the house, a dollar was placed in the jar. Money activities are meant to be motivators to change behavior. Let’s see how this experiment worked.
Our son was all in the game and willing to participate. His competitor persona, vibrant and alive, was ready to play. Our daughter refused unequivocally—and when I suggested that suck was a bad word she told me to “buzz” off. My spouse, ever the polite one, of course was in—but his version of a curse, darn, only highlighted the severity of my obscenities and my bad influence on my growing son’s vocabulary. What came next was not pretty or successful.
The jar was front and center in our family room—ready to receive the cursing cash. We all (except for our daughter who said suck) leaned into the competition and placed our dollars in the jar as the curse words slipped out. More often than not, my purse was not in the vicinity. I asked my spouse for a dollar. His one-dollar bills gone, he gave me a ten. A ten, perfect, I had credit for 9 more cusses. The situation continued for a month. While the money accumulated, cursing moderated, and our son asked incessantly, what’s going to happen with the jar of money?
We never clarified the prize money aspect of our exercise. I made some reference to a fun night out with the family (is that a prize?). Without the clarity of the connection between the financial reward and changed behavior, the activity was doomed to fail. And so, the experiment dwindled over the weeks following our initial gung-ho month. Eventually, the curse jar sat with cash for a few months, and as I cleared the clutter in the kitchen and family room, the cash went into my purse and bought groceries for the week. The outcome lacked impact, but at least the curses were composted for our nourishment.
Returning to the experience and sharing with you cultivates old wounds… a tender place of shame, frustration, and doubt, along with present clarity… and a good dose of humor, reality and acceptance.
In addition to how we are human and sometimes fail at our attempts to change, what is the jewel in this month’s news? It is, in fact, November, the month of giving thanks. Where is my gratitude? I am grateful—for failed attempts to change and the self-acceptance of at least trying. We don’t know what we don’t know until we try. When it comes to change and the lining of money, it gets tricky. So let’s go closer to the money.
First, when money is part of the behavior change, it needs to mean something and that something needs to be clarified. In our example, we needed clarity on our son’s question, what happens with the jar of money. How are we tracking our behavior in relation to the jar of money accumulating? In other words, what is the benefit of our individual and collective decreased cursing? … for me, set a better example for my son. For our son, receiving the jar of money for his own use? For my spouse, support family unity.
Second, metrics to track progress provide encouragement for behavior change. If there are no external markers of success, it requires extra internal mental energy to fuel the game. Are we tracking the money accumulating in the jar? In relation to who is cursing? How do our curses get measured? Who is on first? What is on second?
Third, what is the tension tug? By tension tug I mean where does awareness get activated with tension to shape new behavior. For me, putting a dollar in a jar meant little. And I did not go deeper – activating tension – doing this for the benefit of my son’s development. Not my best mothering moment.
There are many who have successfully changed potty mouth behavior with money. I just Googled swear jars and wasted 20 minutes reading stories. Jar motivation works best with one person, not collectively. But, if I had the chance for a do-over, here’s how I would set it up: a challenge with my son, just the two of us. Curses cost $1.00. For each curse we put a dollar in the jar and we track on a sheet – curses spoken, for a month. At the end of the month, person with the fewer curses wins the jar. Repeat another month. Only this time, we look for decrease in percentage of cursing from prior month for the winner. Repeat another month. At the end of the third month, pause and have a deeper conversation. Besides the reward of money, what else has happened?
The jewel of this month is this: money is a valuable start to behavior change. However, it is not lasting because a lasting change in behavior requires a connection to what deeply matters in the heart. Money did not matter enough to me. Curse words, even today, do not cause distress – in comparison to other life events. I trusted my son, and still do, to navigate his development despite my limitations and negative language influence. I mean he did have his father, who stills says darn.