Meet Ellie. Ellie’s been making the rounds on YouTube because she’s got a very colorful vocabulary. I’m no expert but I think Ellie’s vocabulary might be perpetuated by her father’s eagerness to video tape it. Don’t get me wrong— I’m not judging. If Mazzy busted out with sonofabitch this and motherfucker that, I’d run and get my flip camera faster than you can say— BLOG FODDER! But this isn’t about Mazzy. It’s about Ellie, the foul-mouthed baby below…
To be clear, Ellie’s dad isn’t asking for help in remedying this situation. And even if he did, I wouldn’t be able to help him. But you know who can? Dr. B!
So, Dr. B— If Ellie’s dad wanted to stop his daughter from saying “fuck it”, what should he do?
Young children learn words at a rapid rate. Some researchers estimate that children learn between three to six words per day between the ages of 18 months to 6-years-old. But they often do not fully understand the meaning of a new word until they test it out, hear the word used in different situations, and observe the way people react to it.
When a young child uses a “bad word,” people often react with shock and/or amusement. So the child will often continue to use the bad word because they like that it elicits a BIG reaction. They may also continue to use the bad word because they see others (siblings, peers) get a BIG reaction from using it, because they hear the word used frequently, or because they learn the function of the word (e.g., to express angry feelings or to provoke someone).
Although children can learn a word after a single exposure, they must practice the word to fully integrate it into their vocabulary. Therefore, when children are simply parroting a “bad word” they have heard at home, it is best to ignore the behavior and stop exposing your child to swearing in the house.
If the child has already learned that the word has power and uses it to get your attention, another good strategy is to replace the word with another similar sounding word (e.g., replace “F***” with “fudge” or “F*** it” with “Forget it” or “Bucket”).
Make sure to praise your child when they use the appropriate replacement word to give the new word more “power” than the bad word. Because young children don’t know the meaning of bad words, teaching the replacement word is the same as teaching your child to correct any other incorrectly learned word. It requires time and consistency. Each time your child says the bad word, simply correct them by stating the replacement word in a matter-of-fact tone and then praise them when they repeat you with the correct word.
If you are a parent that is having trouble breaking the swearing habit, be a good role model by apologizing for saying the word and then by stating the appropriate replacement word that you should have used in the situation.
Some children learn bad words outside of the home. At around 3-years-old, children may begin to understand simple explanations for why they shouldn’t say a bad word that they have heard others use. For instance you can say, “That is not a nice word because it hurts people’s feelings. I don’t want you to use that word again” or “That’s a bad word and we don’t use that word in this house.” Some children will understand your request and simply stop using the word. While other children may use the word again to test your limits and see whether you are serious about your rules. If your child tries to test your limits, try ignoring or teaching a replacement word as explained above.
If your child is using bad words to express angry feelings or to provoke you, a very effective strategy is to remain calm, describe how they are probably feeling, and give them the appropriate words to use in the situation to express themselves. For example, “You are mad at mommy because you can’t have more cookies.” When young children are able to express themselves using appropriate words, they are using language to control their emotions and behavior which is worthy of praise.
It may seem odd to praise a child who is expressing angry feelings toward you but remember that it is much better than the alternative which may include tantrums and aggressive behavior. When you respect your child’s feelings and praise them for using their words, you may find yourself avoiding a power struggle and having a somewhat civilized interaction with your child.
What shouldn’t you do if you’d like your child to stop swearing? Laugh at it, videotape it, post it on YouTube, and play it over and over again for family and friends. Clear?
(Editor’s Note: I didn’t say it— it was Dr. B!)
If you have a question for Dr. B, our resident developmental psychologist, please email me at email@example.com.