According to recent studies, kids cuss like sailors.

The difference is, sailors usually have the sense not to curse in front of their superiors — especially those who control their fate.

Swearing comes in an array of colors, of course. There's the garden-variety profanities, ugly blasphemies, chilling vulgarities and demeaning racial epithets. But for many adolescents and pre-teens, such words not only run together, they're not even real words. They use them the way most people use flour in cooking — as "filler."

Michael Leahy, a guidance counselor, says, "I think that the lines between public and private language have become blurred for our kids."

Some people — mostly academics — don't worry about the issue. They see language as a living thing that evolves and changes and potty-mouthed kids are simply the latest new embodiment of English.

But people in the real world are not so glib. And not just because foul language upsets people who feel it is coarse, but because those same people are often the ones who are in a position to further or hinder a child's progress in the world.

The best approach, teachers say, is not to punish bad language, but to teach kids to be more aware and more caring of others. (Anyone who has dealt with teens, of course, knows how hard that row is to hoe.)

Still, until young people realize that "self-expression" isn't the end-all and be-all of existence, that taking into account the feelings and attitudes of others is not only a moral choice, but a choice that tends to be in one's own best interest, the swearing trend will continue its downward slide. When distinctions in language suffer, so do distinctions in ideas.

Parents need to teach children about language, the way they teach them about drugs, alcohol and cigarettes. Only then will children realize that spouting profanity in public is not so much about "being an individual." It's a good way to lose out in life and miss opportunities that would normally come their way.