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Swearing in Young Children: How to Curb Potty Mouth

Updated on April 3, 2013

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.


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    • profile image

      Linda 3 years ago

      much what you can do with Market Samurai, aside from many other useful tighns you can ready on my Market Samurai Review.I know you can get overwhelmed by the quantity of functions and buttons you have on MS, but after

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      Judowolf 6 years ago

      TP, I do not think so. My dad was a longshoreman and I went to the docks at an early age and thought the F-bomb was the same as love. Oh well, thanks for the thought

    • TPSicotte profile image

      TPSicotte 6 years ago from The Great White North

      Hmm is it too late to teach an old dog new tricks?

    • profile image

      Judowolf 6 years ago


      Hey TP, very good article and I agree with all your excellent advice. I have sixteen grandchildren and my mouth has known to get me in trouble over the years. My daughters inherited my trash mouth and I am glad to say my grandchildren are on the way. The f-bomb is my favorite and when I am gone my legacy will life on as my daughters view the f- bomb in the context of any non-offensive word and my grandchildren never get a rise from them. It is the public who get all out of shape.

    • TPSicotte profile image

      TPSicotte 6 years ago from The Great White North

      Boys tend to be a lot more of a handful than girls in general. Go to a playground and see which moms look harried and stressed. They are usually the ones with boys. I have noticed with kids of divorced parents the child often feels responsible on some levels for their situation. Its not logical but they are still very egocentric and believe they have the power to make these things happen, even when we tell them differently.

      Boys also need a lot of help sometimes in objectifying their behavior. They need feedback on things like how to make friends, how to keep friends, and how to stop and think before reacting or saying something hurtful. Its an ongoing process but the main thing is just encouraging them to learn to get along well with others and learn from mistakes. We can't protect them from everything in life but we can help them have some of the tools needed to get through.

      One of my favorite books that I recommend to all parents for talking to kids about positive values and how to be a good person is the family virtues guide. Its simple and straightforward and helps keep us as parents on track too.

    • kallini2010 profile image

      kallini2010 6 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      I am quite OK with sexuality, maybe because my parents are doctors. But to tell you the truth, they never could talk to me about it normally - it was all medical jargon and went above my head. I just learned not to ask questions in order not to get ridiculous medical explanations. I was rather clueless about the subject until my marriage.

      Daniel's best story: I am sitting at the computer and typing and he comes

      - Mom, my peepee is ready to make children!

      - ???

      - [shows me his readiness]

      - Now I will pee on you and we will have a brother or a sister!

      I was only afraid that he will pee, again! on a carpet... Then I explained, that it is not pee, it will come later, blah, blah, blah...

      Now he either seems to have lost his interest or to know better than to demonstrate it so openly.

      I want him to be open with me no matter what, no matter what age, otherwise I would not be able to be there for him. But aside from our "sexuality" and "foul language" concerns, there are others, such as bullying at school. And he is not so willing to share things with me because he thinks it will upset me. It worries me, really...

      I will check out your other hubs. I am really interested in learning how to handle my little treasure the best way possible. I don't have much experience with boys. I was the only child (a girl and completely different from Daniel), he is my only child, between divorced parents... with two languages, lagging in development, hating school, not very good socially...

      Where do I begin?

    • TPSicotte profile image

      TPSicotte 6 years ago from The Great White North

      I have read a lot about sexuality in children. Erections and self pleasuring are fairly common. They are still erogenous zones even if many parents don't want to think about it. We just need to let them know about what is private and what parts are private. We don't want to make them feel ashamed because it will only lead to issues down the road. I wrote a page about playing doctor that covers some of this. Sexuality in kids seems to be a taboo subject for a lot of parents. Not many people read that hub. lol

    • kallini2010 profile image

      kallini2010 6 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      Frankly, I think he is creative and artistic, but, oh my God, challenging! "Mom, you talk too much!" He found delight in the game that I bought "You gotta be kidding!", it contains all kinds of disgusting scenarios to choose from, but I realized that it is a stage a boy has to experience. It makes him laugh, so I go along.

      Sometimes I think curiosity should be satisfied. Ancient Greeks swam naked, there was nothing odd about it. Basically, there is nothing odd about it. Curiosity is natural, once satisfied, there is no need to go any deeper. We watched a movie (definitely not for a seven year old) where a corpse was being examined by medical students. I thought Daniel would be put off by it, but he took it in stride, whereas I cringed. "Mom, students have to learn!" His rationale for watching it was "I want to see what it is like to be doctors just like grandparents". OK, good reasoning.

      I don't know whether Freud was right or wrong, but Daniel's sexuality was manifested so early that I was afraid that school might discover it and blame it on parents. I never researched what was the right time for a boy to have a full erection, but Daniel's clock was set by the age of six. And he loved to demonstrate it. Of course! Then he liked to perform the "adult" kiss - I just had to endure and do nothing in response. Only to explain that it is for an adult man to kiss an adult woman, not for a son to kiss a mother. But I guess the same principle applies - the less attention you draw to it, the sooner the behaviour passes. What amazed me, that he did everything quite well. What? From only watching it on TV?

      I guess, I have a little experimentalist and there is nothing I can do but try and steer his curiosity in more socially acceptable direction.

    • TPSicotte profile image

      TPSicotte 6 years ago from The Great White North

      Wow your son sounds like a real energetic and creative boy. I hope you can find ways to encourage him to use more acceptable phrases but try to be low key, hopefully it will pass. Who knows maybe there is something to what Freud called the anal stage of development. Whether we agree with Freud completely or not there is no doubt that many children are fascinated with bodily functions.

    • kallini2010 profile image

      kallini2010 6 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      Oh, my son thrives on vocabulary! Being challenged with language (speaking two languages, both of which are broken), he never fails to get his message across. So, the shorter and nastier the expression the better.

      "Shut up" is one of them. Now, he goes through the stage of saying "pooh-pooh", "pee", "weenie", "right in your face" and God knows what, I cannot wait when it is over. "What the hell?" WTF, ... it is unbearable. He does not even know what the word "f-ck" means, but nonetheless uses it. So, I bear with it. I do explain, but it does not help. Once I suggested that if he did not stop, I would ask him to put his head in the toilet to reunite with his favourite things (pooh-poohs). Little that I knew, that he actually did it. I was astonished, I thought it would be a good demotivator, yet my son loved a challenge. Believe me I did not force him, there is a fascination with the toilet. I hope his curiosity is satisfied for now. Things that he does... Putting a finger in his anus and showing results to the public. I think he is a little researcher in his nature, I only wish that the subject of his interest will shift soon.

      His father, though, was never able to give up those expressions -- terrible "crutches". "All people are assholes", "These Chinese drivers..." But what can you do with adults? To tell you the truth, before I married, I never swore. Now I feel if I stop using swearing words, something is missing. Even though I am still more sensitive to Russian swearing vocabulary than to English one.

      Swearing these days is really an issue.

      Not only for kids.

    • TPSicotte profile image

      TPSicotte 7 years ago from The Great White North

      Thanks for the comment. Its funny what happens we we have high expectations. Our children think they are being real rebels when they say things like shut up.

    • pennyofheaven profile image

      pennyofheaven 7 years ago from New Zealand

      Excellent advice. We were very lucky in that by the time we got a TV most of our learned ways were established. My mum never swore and if we picked up a phrase or two she would ask what it meant, even though she knew. Funny how as children when you mimic other children you feel really foolish when you don't actually know what it means. Then when you admitted you didn't know she would explain in a teaching kind of manner inter weaved in her message that she "preferred" whatever was said in another way. So shut up was a swear word in our household. It was to be replaced with be quiet. Worked for us also if we did accidentally say something we understood and she gave us that displeased look. Mainly because my mum always looked for opportunities to praise and uplift and share more positive ways to view our world and everything in it. So if displeasure ever stole across her gentle loving face we soon learned what was acceptable and what was not because of the rarity of that look.

      My children and siblings children have been taught very much in the same manner.

      Awesome hub Thanks!