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When Young Children Experiment With Bad Words

When four year olds begin finding "bathroom talk" funny, parents usually dismiss the "you're a poo poo head" with a shrug of the shoulders. "It's just a phase," parents will say. And indeed, this type of "humor" does seem to pass by the time a child is around five or six years of age. Yet when those same children begin experimenting with four letter words, very few parents will dismiss it with "it's just a phase." Indeed, children's initial experimentation with four letter words often shocks and inflames parents. Some parents respond with moral imperatives: "We do NOT talk like that in this family", "Those are not NICE words, don't ever let me hear you say that again!" Other parents respond punitively -- some even wash their child's mouth out with soap. But these techniques are weak in the face of the power that the child gains by using "bad" language and rarely, if ever, will they stop the behavior. Yet just like "bathroom talk", four letter words are experimental in nature and have the potential to fade out like other phases, provided that parents handle it appropriately.

When your child begins using four letter words, keep in mind that he's probably looking for limits, testing you to see how you'll respond. He's generally picked up the words from his friends (or maybe from you), and has already been using them at school. When he uses them in front of you, it's not because he "slipped" but because he wants to know how you feel about those words, and whether they're within the moral code of your family. One mother told me that her child wrote "the F word" in bright red lipstick on her bathroom mirror. Clearly this child wanted Mom to know he was experimenting, and to find out how she felt about it.

The first rule of thumb involves remaining calm yourself. The moment that your temper flares your child will receive the clear message that these are powerful words and she will then use them when she wants to feel powerful. Remember how exciting it is for a child to see Mom or Dad all hot under the collar and out of control! A better tactic involves deflating the power. Look puzzled if you can. Say to your child "Hmmm, I see you wrote the word "F- - k" on the mirror. Do you know what it means?" When you use the same word in a calm tone of voice, it becomes not so much fun for your child to use it. Asking her about the meaning is helpful because young children often do not know the meaning, they've just picked up the word from their friends. If your child says "yes" she does know the meaning, ask her to tell you what it is. Most often she will then admit she doesn't know. At that point, you will do well to deflate the power of the word by stating something along the lines of a dictionary definition: "Well, it's slang for when two people have sex with