Blame it on YouTube, older kids on the schoolyard, PG-13 movies, or even yourself, but at some point, your child is going to use a curse word.
And how should you handle it when your third grader or even kindergartner uses such words? Even if the absurdity of such a profane word spoken by your little angel makes you want to laugh, try to refrain, and be thoughtful about your response.
Then follow these steps to nip the swearing habit in the bud.
1. Respond, don’t ignore.
Some parents think that any reaction to a curse word will just encourage your child to use it again. But instead of ignoring it completely, it’s important to take advantage of this teaching moment. Otherwise, how can you expect your child to learn why it’s not appropriate?
Stay calm, and address your child immediately. If you’re speaking to someone under 6 years old, keep it simple. Explain that it’s a word we don’t ever use — a “bad” word. You can also put it in terms they understand by saying something like, “It’s even worse than ‘stupid’ ” or another word that isn’t welcome in your house.
If it’s an older child who used a curse word, again, address it right away. But since older kids can understand more abstract concepts, begin by asking your child if they understand what that word means. If they don’t, you can explain in an age-appropriate way that curse words are offensive and that they aren’t acceptable in your home.
Explain that swearing is sometimes a way of expressing emotion, that many curse words hurt other people, and that there are better ways of showing how you feel. You can also tell them that people respond differently to you based on the kinds of words you use, and it’s important to remember that as they get older.
If your child does know the meaning of the curse word he used, give him the same explanation for why you don’t want him using that word and be prepared for follow-up questions. The meaning of curse words, and the power behind them, is generally part of a larger discussion.
2. Come up with alternatives.
Build on this discussion by brainstorming with your child to come up with new words and things to say in place of curse words. If you’re guilty of swearing yourself at times, promise that you’ll commit to using the new word as well. And then follow through next time you stub your toe!
If your child dropped a bomb because she was fighting with her brother, for example, look at it as an opportunity to talk about how she was feeling at the time. Together, you can think of more productive ways to manage that kind of situation.
3. Be honest about your own language.
Sometimes, your child will (rightfully) point out that they’ve heard you or her father use a swear word. Don’t try to justify or deny it. When you do either, you create a double standard for your child.
Just admit that sometimes it’s hard to control what you say, and you’re working on your language too. This can also make your child feel more grown-up, because you’re both dealing with an adult challenge.
4. Don’t positively reinforce the behavior.
It may be hilarious, but make sure your child is out of earshot when you’re sharing the story with his dad or your friends. If they hear everyone laughing when you tell them what they said, you’re sending mixed messages about curse words, and your child may use it again just to get a similar reaction.
5. Be consistent.
Keep in mind the mixed message idea when you have guests in your home. If someone makes a habit of swearing during a visit to your house, pull them aside to explain that you have a no-curse words rule at home.
If you’re watching television or a movie with colorful language, don’t assume your child is too busy with their crayons to notice. The saying “little pitchers have big ears” is very accurate!
6. Follow through with consequences.
If your child continues to use curse words, you’ll need to be a little firmer.
With an older child, explain that there will be consequences every time they swear, and be clear about what they can expect. Then make sure to follow through every time. For a 3- or 4-year-old, stick with gentle but firm reminders about not using bad words.
Remember, every child is going to swear at some point. It’s your job to guide them in the way they need it most. Your goal should be setting appropriate boundaries, helping them express their feelings, and learning to present themselves in the best way possible.