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Mr. Miser

Will a swear jar help clean up my potty mouth in front of my daughter? Add to ...

I've got a huge bleeping problem. I can't stop saying bleep and bleep and sometimes, I'm ashamed to say, bleepin' bleep in front of my daughter.

There's a good chance that when my daughter starts talking, she'll be a walking Quentin Tarantino script.

So to clean up my potty mouth, I've turned to arguably one of the greatest behaviour modification tools ever invented, mixing as it does bedrock economic principles and key psychological insights all in one simple package: the swear jar.

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But does watching the money pile up help you cut out the cussing?

"Whether we're trying to quit smoking or watch our weight or watch how we swear or whatever it is, the effect of monitoring our behaviour and being aware of it has an effect of improving behaviour," David Dozois, a psychology professor at the University of Western Ontario, tells me.

Of course, it helps to have a good reason to change a behaviour in the first place.

If you don't have anyone who looks to you as a role model, it's fine to go around talking like you're in a biker bar. But if you have young children who, like all children, assume that whatever you say must also be fine for them to say, you've got to watch that filthy bleepin' mouth of yours.

It took a stark example of this to push me to mend my ways. A few weeks ago, my brother told me that his two-year-old daughter was sitting on the couch, adorable and cherubic as always, when she dropped her juice cup on the floor. In response to this minor catastrophe, she didn't say "shoot" or "darn" or "Elmo's not going to like that." No, she dropped an f-bomb, and did so as casually as can be. My brother, horrified, had to face the sobering reality that in all likelihood she learned the word from him.

And my wife and I had to take a long look at our own proclivity for swear words.

After three weeks, I can reliably report some of the basics that make a punishment jar effective.

First, choose a penalty that actually hurts. My wife and I ding ourselves a buck for every bad word.

"The punishment has to be enough. If you're not really feeling a dollar then it's going to take longer or it won't be effective at all," Dr. Dozois says.

When Jennifer Derrick, a 38-year-old writer in Raleigh, N.C., started a swear jar in late 2008, she initially charged herself 25 cents for every bad word.

"That wasn't enough," she says. "I progressed through dollars and ended up at $5. [That was]the limit that hurt."

Also, decide what you are going to use the money for. If you're going to use it to pay for something you want, like a vacation or a case of beer ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JI3Y1auTFpU), then you've actually incentivized swearing.

Ms. Derrick decided to give her swear jar money to the local SPCA. Even though the money was going to a good cause, it still hurt a little to write the cheque, she says.

I've decided to give my swear jar money to the guy asking for change outside the liquor store. While I'm not adamantly against giving this guy my money, I'm not thrilled by the prospect of doing so. My wife plans to give her swear jar proceeds to our daughter's education fund.

While we both still swear on occasion (my wife much more than me, judging by our jars), we're getting better. If I stub my toe now, I'll yell out "octopus!" or "shimmy sham!" or some such exclamation. Sure, it may be ridiculous for me to exclaim "Rodney Dangerfield that's hot!" when sipping a scalding coffee. But at least it's not something I'd have a problem with my daughter yelling out at daycare.

Finally, as with all attempts at changing behaviour, diligence is crucial. A lot of times I'll find myself saying a bad word, mutter "swear jar," then not put a dollar into the jar. That's not going to help anyone.

But as Dr. Dozois points out, everyone is going to have lapses once in a while. Accept it, but don't use that fact as an excuse to quit altogether. Just get back up on that bleepin' wagon. Oops, swear jar.

Follow on Twitter: @Dave_McGinn

 

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