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Swearing in Young Children: How to Curb Potty Mouth
Children and the Behavior Problem of Swearing
My child has a potty mouth. She keeps saying words she shouldn’t be using. It’s embarrassing, especially when we are out in public. I have heard parents say this on numerous occasions but often the way they react to the child swearing only serves to reinforce the behavior problem. Maybe it is difficult to not be shocked and embarrassed but there are better ways of responding to this problem.
Children pick up language in their immediate environment. If your child uses a variety of colorful epithets or there is one choice word they really like, odds are they are most likely getting them from a parent, sibling, neighbor, friend, or from TV or movies. As much as we can we need to find a way to get to the source of the behavior problem and minimize its influence on our young one.
Usually, behavior problems like swearing will pass with time. If you leave it alone it will often go away on its own. However, it can be a little embarrassing for a parent when their three-year-old drops an f-bomb at the supermarket. Profanity has become more and more common in our world so it is difficult to completely avoid it. The simple fact is your child is just repeating something they have already heard and maybe even on numerous occasions. It’s not really their fault so do your best not to overreact.
We really do need to do our best to reduce this type of language in children though. As they enter preschool, kindergarten, or primary school the use of profanity will often bring them unneeded negative attention from caregivers, teachers, and even school principals. This of course will also often mean a meeting with mom and dad to discuss their child’s behavior problem.
Kids often Parrot Too
What to do when Children use Profanity
The best response is to actively ignore it and give it no
weight. For young children behavior that elicits no response is behavior that
usually doesn’t have much traction. It may be hard to completely ignore
especially if they do it in public and it gets a response from passersby. The best
thing to do at a time like that is to calmly say to anyone who might seem
offended, yah we’re working on actively
ignoring that right now . If you really can’t
help but respond, a neutral but firm request to your child to not use that word
is more effective than an emotional response to the situation. Just let them
know that is not a word you want to hear from your children. Remember it is a behavior problem to us but the more we react the more of a behavior problem it becomes.
The other side of the coin is that you can get excited about many of the other more acceptable words they have in their vocabulary. Kids like attention so if you respond with enthusiasm to another word that word might become their new favorite. You can also suggest other words to say in place of swear words and then use praise to reinforce those words. If your child is in a really oppositional stage, then you could always fake being extremely offended by a neutral word but this is likely unnecessary (still, there is always that one child that requires these types of tactics). Encouraging your child to expand their vocabulary is always a good idea anyway. Get them to share new words with you often and give them the thumbs up on the words you really like, rather than focusing on the ones you don’t appreciate.
Avoiding Unintentionally Reinforcing Your Child's Swearing Behavior Problem
Don’t be surprised if your child continues to swear if other kids or even adults laugh when they swear. Children love this type of attention and sometimes it does make us chuckle. Try to pretend you were laughing at something else if this happens. And if you really are serious about wanting the behavior problem to stop, by all means don’t be the parent who invites the neighbors and relatives over and then asks the child to repeat their new outrageous word. You don’t need to film it and put it on YouTube. Sounds crazy I know but some parents are more interested in their own amusement than in having the child learn appropriate language skills.
If you really do have to comment you can also use a reframe. This means changing the way we look at a behavior problem to see it in a more positive way. When I worked with children who had serious behavior problems and who repeatedly used foul language, I would often comment that they had a real creative way with words and an interesting vocabulary. I would encourage them to keep expanding their vocabulary with other interesting words, not just swear words.
Addressing the Source of a Behavior Problem: Role models, Siblings, TV, Movies etc.
If your child’s swearing is getting worse and is really bothering you, and you don’t know the source of the words, you might want to do a little detective work. Maybe you are unaware of who might be using that language in front of your child. If it is an older sibling, for example, then you might need to address the issue with them. Usually the source of a behavior problem is obvious, so if you have to get out the swear jar. go ahead and make it a family issue and start fining.
You might not be aware of your own language and your child is only mirroring one of their role models. Maybe they are learning it from movies and television. I worked with a child once who used to hide under his parents bed when they were in their room watching TV. As a result, he had been exposed to erotic adult movies from a very young age. He also had a pretty interesting vocabulary for a little guy. Just be aware that sometimes your children are seeing and hearing much more than their parents are aware of, so do your best to pay attention to what is going on in your environment.
The days of washing a child's mouth out with soap have come and gone. Thankfully. Reprimanding or even spanking kids for a behavior problem usually only makes that behavior more intriguing to them. When kids are going through stages where they are developing autonomy, they will often engage in these behaviors as a way of showing they are independent. Further, studies of child behavior consistently show that negative reinforcement only increases the likelihood of the behavior being repeated.
Do your children a favor if they begin to swear. Be more aware of your own behavior as a role model and do your best to downplay or ignore the behavior. Encourage friends and family members to also watch their language when a little one is present. Remember, kids thrive on attention. Tell them calmly when you don’t appreciate the word they are using and get excited when they use words that you do like. All in a day’s job of effective parenting.