You don't have to be perfect to be the perfect parent!

Your child said what??? Don’t pull out the soap….this works better…..

child swearing

What do you do when your sweet child utters a four letter word???

There are few things more shocking than hearing the sweet voice of your child say a 4 letter word…in the correct context no less! It is not uncommon for parents to look at me with shocked eyes and whisper, “Do you know what Johnny said yesterday? What do I do?” Most children at some point will say inappropriate words…from bathroom related “poopy head” to the dreaded 4 letter words that make us cringe. What in the world are our kids thinking when those words come from those cute little mouths?! The fact is, most of the time at this age kids are either testing the limits of their language or think they are funny. Preschoolers often are figuring out what words result in getting an immediate response from Mom or Dad (that 4 letter word will usually do it!) and body functions and private parts just seem to be hysterically funny at this age. So what do you do? Don’t pull out the soap; there are more effective ways to handle a child with a “potty mouth”!

  • There is a difference between inappropriate language (talking about poop at the dinner table) and language that is totally off limits and offensive. You can help your child understand the difference with guidance. If the dinner discussion suddenly becomes gross, a quick reminder that eating and bathroom topics don’t mix may help. If inappropriate talk continues at the table or it shows up when Grandma or your family pastor is visiting (heaven forbid!) a quick dismissal with a calm statement of “This talk is inappropriate, if you would like to say those words please go to your room”; will remove any attention to the behavior. It simply is not fun talking about poop in your room with no one to there to listen! Even though these potty type words may be unacceptable in your home, most children will experiment with them during the preschool years when there is a lot of focus on bathroom activity and curiosity about body parts. Sending the message that “poop” is not inherently bad…but “poopy face” is not appropriate can be simply accomplished by redirecting and not over reacting.
  • Children in the preschool years are starting to learn words that can be hurtful It is hard to hear your 4 year old say “You are a stupid Mommy!” when you don’t let him or her stay up a bit later or eat that cookie before dinner. Responding calmly is once again the key. Children at age 3 and 4 are just starting to learn about empathy and feelings, so calmly saying “We don’t say words like that, they hurt feelings” is a better response than over reacting. If the unkind words continue, help your child learn what he or she can say when they are upset and begin using time out or removing a privilege if the unkind words become a habit. Be sure to help your child develop alternative acceptable behaviors when they are upset or angry…not just tell them they can’t call names.
  • When your preschooler or school age child utters the shocking four letter word, the hair on the back of your neck will rise…what do you do? Preschoolers have no idea what those words mean, they just know that they have heard them in emotional situations and they get reaction. Children are sponges, they will pick up words they hear and will use them in correct situations because they have observed when they are used. “Mom was angry and she said #!&.” The big kids that I think are so cool were talking and they called someone #!$&” After hearing these words, children will often “try them out” to see what happens. If a parent reacts big…the word will probably be repeated. Attention drives behavior. The first time a parent hears a swear word from a young child the best response is no response. If a parent totally ignores the language many times a child will not use it again. If a parent hears it again a calm response with “We don’t say that word, it is not a nice word” will usually curb the language. If your child is using it when upset or frustrated, come up with a word that would be appropriate, maybe even funny!
  • Older children (school agers and teens) may need a consequence for the language. You can talk as a family about which words are going to be acceptable in your home and what will not. Children older than 4 or 5 may benefit from a brief explanation of what the word means and why it is not nice. Consequences like time outs, losing privileges or even contributing a quarter to a jar every time an older child uses a swear word might be other family options. Parents need to be aware of their own language, children will model what they see and hear. Sometimes parents will also need to participate in changing their habits, if a word slips, be sure and tell your child that you are sorry and you should not have used that word. Be aware of the TV shows and video games your older child is watching and playing, many of them will introduce offensive words too. Developing a family word that can be said when angry or frustrated (my husband has yelled “beans” for years…and I often hear my now 21 year old son yelling the same when upset) will help curb swearing too.

Just like most bumps in childhood development, the use of shocking language will go away if parents respond calmly and consistently (and set a good example themselves!) So the first time your child says something that makes your face turn red and your heart race (trust me it will ALWAYS be in front of someone besides just you!)…take a breath and respond calmly. Our parenting mantra is always…attention is attention whether negative or positive…and attention will always encourage a behavior, good or bad!

Take a breath, enjoy the joyful moments of each day, and remember you don’t have to be perfect to be the perfect parent.


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