What to do when your young child swears

Young children experiment with swear words for a multitude of reasons and rarely understand their meanings or implications. Sometimes it is purely by accident as they form new words and sounds; sometimes they are copying something they have heard out in public, without your knowledge; and sometimes, wherever they may have picked it up from, they are testing it simply because they think it will get a reaction from you.

Those reactions from parents and caregivers will most likely determine that child’s attitude towards bad words, and their place within the child’s developing vocabulary.

So, what’s the best way to react?

First and foremost, remember to keep calm. Children have been experimenting with inappropriate words ever since inappropriate words were invented, and becoming embarrassed or angry will affect your ability to deal with it promptly and efficiently.

If this is a one-off, we simply ignore it completely, just a slip of the tongue. If your child is using a swear word to get your attention, and they get just that, then you have confirmed that this test was a success. Your little learner will remember that the next time they’re hankering for your attention and the potty mouth will strike again.

If experimentation continues, they may not even know that this is a bad word to use. In this sense any shaming is completely redundant, we simply need to gently explain that this is not a good choice of words for the situation, and offer an alternative word or phrase. If it is just down to bad pronunciation of a similar sounding word, then gentle correction is all that is required.

Should we ever explain what the bad words mean?

Unless there is an obsession with a particular word, and unnecessary frustrations are arising from your child wanting to know what it means, then generally the under 5’s do not need any detailed explanations. Just to know that it is ‘not a very nice word’ or ‘something we don’t need to say’ is usually enough. Until their language and vocabulary develop further it may well invite more questions and frustration to give partial or censored explanations.

Some generalised explanation can be helpful for slightly older children, you can often simplify a dictionary definition to make it suitable for the age of your child. This way you can also know that the information is correct.

For a 4/5-year-old who is overly curious about the word ‘s**t’, you might say: “This is another word for poop, but it is not a nice word. We use poop or number 2 instead.”

What’s acceptable?

Your own house rules will need to dictate the level of language that is acceptable, and then all family members should stick to that, especially when in earshot of the younger ones. ‘Oh, hell’ or ‘Damn it’ may be okay in some households and not in others. But obviously vulgar or obscene language should never be used around children.

Do remember to have a bit of leniency with the sillier words that tend to amuse most young children, ‘Botty, potty farts’ and ‘Poo, poo bum’ are mostly harmless terms that come to light as children learn body parts and noises. After all, we can be thankful that our little learners are becoming so observant of the world around them!

At Cherry Bridge Station Early Learning & Childcare centres in NSW, we encourage healthy language development and guide your little learners with a curriculum full of hands-on, creative activity-based programs. Visit the site to enquire about a place at your nearest centre.