At some point every parent has to deal with the problem of children using inappropriate language. It is not usually too difficult to cope with if appropriate principles of Applied Behavior Analysis are used. It is important to address the issue as soon as it appears because swearing can easily become an unconscious habit.

Reasons for Swearing

Only some of the reasons for swearing are the same for children as they are for adults. While children may learn to curse out of anger or frustration, toddlers may just use swear words accidentally as they explore sounds they can make. If they happen to say a curse word and get a big reaction — such as shock or laughter — they will be eager to make the sound again. In such situations, parents can just ignore the word they want to eliminate from the baby’s limited vocabulary and teach the child substitute words to which they should react with pleasure.

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Young children who use curse words may not be aware of their meaning and may just be mimicking others. On the other hand, they may know that the words are inappropriate without knowing why, and may be using them to get attention. In such situations, the best path for the parent to take is to explain that the word is not a polite one and should not be used by anyone, but especially by a child.

Older children may use curse words or derogatory language without knowing why they are offensive. It is the parent’s job to explain to them that such words can hurt people’s feelings and even make them very angry — good reasons to erase them from one’s vocabulary.

By the time children are pre-adolescents, they usually know the meaning of any “bad” words they try out. Since children hear these words most often shouted in moments of anger or frustration, they may seem to have a kind of special power. Also, because these words are most often used by adults in conversations that exclude children, they may be considered forbidden, and therefore desirable.

When your child uses a curse word knowingly in the household, he is clearly seeking attention. Your best bet is to correct him gently and not overreact so he doesn’t get the dramatic response he seeks.

Different Places, Different Rules

One of the lessons children have to learn about language is that it varies from one location to another, as well as from one person to another. While it may be acceptable to say “Goddammit!” in one household, this may be an offensive phrase in another. Children learn quickly that they can speak to their friends in ways their parents may not tolerate, or to their parents with words their teacher considers inappropriate.

More easily than one might imagine, children become aware that their vocabulary, as well as their behavior, is supposed to be different in a house of worship than at the playground. As they get older, they should be taught always to err on the side of politeness when they find themselves in a new environment, such as a new friend’s home. It is much easier to relax into the situation than to embarrass oneself and have to apologize.

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Where do children learn curse words?

Very often children pick up curse words at home where rules for adults may be lax, or where their parents use strong language when they think their child can’t hear them. In some cases swear words are only used during parental arguments that children overhear. The fact that their parents are fighting may make these words especially disturbing to the child — using them herself may make her feel she is taking away some of their negative power.

How to React when children use Foul Language

The calmer your reaction to your child’s use of swear words the better. If he doesn’t know the meaning of the word and asks what it means, you can answer matter-of-factly that it is a rude word for sex or a body part and explain that it’s not a word that should be spoken. If your child says he heard you say it to Daddy, or that someone at school said it, or that he heard it on TV, explain that not everybody (not even you) always remembers to follow the rule, but that if he uses that word, it is likely to make other people angry or upset, and that if he uses that word in school he may be punished. Explain that it is particularly offensive for children to use such language.

Determine the function of the behavior. Typically, the first time your child uses an unacceptable word with you, he is testing the waters to see your reaction. Later, curse words may be used as a means of defiance, getting attention, or escape. Older children also use curse words to fit in with their peers.

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Things You Can Do to Minimize the Problem

Parents have to model the good behavior they expect from their children. So, the number one, most important suggestion is to try to eliminate any use of foul language. If you slip, always apologize to show your child how to behave. When it’s necessary to discipline your child, you should make distinctions between an exclamations over a stubbed toe and a swear word directed at someone in anger. In many families, having a “swear jar” works. It’s important that the swear jar money is not used for a family outing or vacation, or as a contribution to charity, since this will make swearing a worthwhile enterprise.

It is best to remain calm in the face of foul language and simply explain that we don’t use that word because it is rude. Give your child alternative words to use at moments of anger, shock, or frustration (Fudge! Shucks! Darn! Cripes! Son of a Gun!). It is often helpful to take suggestions from your child for a funny word substitute so that he becomes part of the process. Words that are derogatory about skin color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or disability are not just rude, but inflict pain and promote violence. They are, therefore, never acceptable.

Make sure that your child knows acceptable words for body parts, excrement, and sexual activity. Even though these words may make you uncomfortable, particularly coming from your child’s mouth, it is critical that she be able to express thoughts, questions, and feelings about her body without having to resort to “dirty” words.