Enhancing children's lives through parent and teacher education.

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 one another." You can go on to say "I'm curious as to why you wanted to write that two people were having sex with one another on the mirror in the bathroom." Obviously, this same conversation can be had if your child is verbally saying the word, and/or using any of the other foul language children experiment with.

The next step involves talking about how the word affects others. Again, keeping your tone of voice calm and matter of fact, you might tell your child that when people hear that particular word they can have strong feelings about it. They might feel angry, for example, or frustrated, or even very sad. It's extremely important as you parent your child to remind him of how his actions affect others. This aids in his developing conscience. While we don't want to go to the extreme of imposing guilt feelings on children, we must find a middle ground so that children do have an understanding that they function interdependently within society, and that their actions and words affect other people. Keep in mind that children who have underdeveloped consciences are at high risk in our society today and put others at risk too.

After you explain to your child that other people will have strong feelings about her using these words, ask her what she thinks the consequences would be if, for example, her teacher were to feel extremely frustrated because she used that word. Might she get sent to the Principle? Would the teacher give her a "time out?" Maybe the teacher would write a note home about the behavior? Ask her what would happen if an older child overheard her saying "F - - k" and got very, very angry because she used that word. What might that older child do? Is it possible that the older child might fight with her about it? Or what if Grandma knew she used the word "F - - k" and felt terribly sad? What might happen then? Encouraging children to think through the consequences of their actions helps them take responsibility for those actions.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, think about where your child is picking up the foul language. If he is hearing you use these words in your home, it will be very difficult to convince him that they are not powerful and should not be used. Many parents, both with this particular topic and with other topics as well, underestimate the importance of their role modeling within the family. Mothers and fathers are teachers. If you want your child to behave in certain ways, you too must behave that way. You are the moral leaders in the family and "do as I say, not as I do" is no longer powerful for children in the 21st Century. Remember that your responsibility is to be the kind of person you'd like your children to be. When you can do that, your children may experiment with different behaviors, but ultimately will grow within the powerful framework that you're providing.