The first time it happened, he was 2, and he repeated “s#*!” after he overheard me whisper it as I slammed on my brakes to avoid an accident. Three years later, he casually dropped the f-bomb in the car in response to having to wait in traffic (“So-and-so taught me on the playground!”). Then, last week he muttered a contextually-appropriate expletive-laced gripe into his *thankfully muted* Zoom classroom. I think I may have a potty mouth on my hands.
Once you get over the shock of it, it’s tempting to blame yourself (if you’re the one dropping the f-bombs in front of the kids, fair point, but if you keep a PG-rating in front of them, don’t!). It’s a common phase kids go through, much like toddlers biting and bedwetting. Bad language is EVERYWHERE in our modern age. In fact, a 2013 study found that by 8-years-old, children know 54 taboo words 😬. While you can’t prevent them from hearing it in the first place, with the right approach, you can nip it in the bud.
*Start with Perspective and Consider Context*
Before you decide on how you’re going to respond and if you’re going to punish, consider the age of your child, the context, and the setting. Younger kids may just be repeating what they’ve overheard and “trying it out.” Older kids tend to use what they know to be a “taboo” word to gain attention or to produce a reaction from you.
Did they innocently drop the word into an otherwise “normal” conversation? Or did they hurl it at someone as an insult? Did they yell it in frustration in their room after you put them in time out? Using a swear to get a laugh feels very different than insulting a sibling during a disagreement, and venting in the privacy of home feels very different than using it in the presence of a respected adult (parent, teacher, etc.).
I found some great advice from Dr. Eugene Beresin, executive director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Here are some helpful tips on what to do when you hear your child utter a “bad word”:
- Take a beat before you say anything. You don’t want to give unwanted behavior too much attention.
- Ask why. Then, follow up with “What were you feeling when you said that?” You might tease out that they were angry or frustrated.
- Problem-solve together. How else could you say that? What would you say if you were at school or Grandma’s house? Your job as a parent is to help them recognize there are different rules for different settings and to equip them with the right tools to express themselves appropriately.
- Explain acceptable behavior. If your child directed the word at someone else, clearly express that this isn’t acceptable. Also, explain that people make mistakes and apologize for them.
- Encourage understanding through questions. How do you think that word made the person feel? How would you feel? Would it help to say sorry? It all helps build empathy. When they show empathy, praise them. Support the behavior that you want to see.
- Be concrete. Don’t try and explain the nuance of particular “bad word” situations to them. Younger kids won’t grasp the difference and only understand clear binaries of good/bad. Keep it simple: Swearing is something that adults do. It’s done at home, not at school, not at a friend’s house, or in public.
And above all, give yourself and your kids plenty of grace when it comes to bad language. We are all human and will mess up. You’ll shout something inappropriate when you drop the frying pan on your toe, and they will inevitably call their sibling something an older kid taught them at recess. If you model appropriate behavior, be consistent, and apologize when it happens, with all luck, they’ll grow up with a healthy understanding of when/where to drop that perfectly-placed expletive 😉.