When my oldest was four years old, he had a procedure done at the Children’s Hospital that involved getting an IV inserted into his little arm. Unfortunately, the nurse kept blowing his veins, but rather than calling for the IV team, she kept trying. And trying. And poking. And prodding. Finally, after what must have been her fifth attempt and another excruciating prick, my son looked at her and calmly said, “You stupid f$&k.”
He said exactly what we were all thinking, but I was still mortified. Apologizing profusely, I said, “I’m so sorry. He is in JK this year and has learned some pretty bad words.” My little angel’s response: “Actually, Mommy, they are not all from kindergarten. I learned a lot of words from you in the car, like douchebag and idiot.” The nurse gave me a dirty look and called the IV team and it was inserted without further incident.
I would like to say that was the last time my son ever swore or that he only swears in extreme circumstances, like when a stubborn nurse is causing him pain, but that would be a lie. In actuality, though, he doesn’t swear that much.
But, unfortunately, my youngest—my sweet, cherubic three-year-old—swears like a trucker (or a mom driver who forgets there are kids in the back seat). And she is not alone: I have one friend whose son’s first word was the F-word. My youngest daughter has recently taken to calling people “fidiots,” a hybrid of her two favourite insults (it sounds so much better than the original, longer version that it was a huge relief when she came up with it).
Profanity seems to be in vogue right now: All of my friends swear, moms in the schoolyard swear, and the president of the United States swears. I’ve read countless articles about how swearing is good for you: It reduces stress, helps with pain management and forges bonds. Still, I was taken aback when my adorable preschooler looked me in the eye and said “F$%k, Mommy, you’re my enemy” after being told that she couldn’t have a juice box.
Laughing didn’t feel like the right way to go (which may or may not have been my reaction to the juice box incident—I was just so shocked, not only that she swore but also that she was able to use the F-word grammatically and in context).
Tamara Soles, a child psychologist in Montreal, says that school-aged children who swear are likely doing it for the same reasons as adults (to express negative emotions and fit in), whereas younger children might be attempting to get a reaction from a parent or experimenting with language.
Soles suggests that the best way to deal with F-bombs is a calm, measured reaction (so not laughing). A strong reaction only reinforces the idea that these words are powerful and can get a response from people pretty quickly. “For young kids experimenting with power, that’s the kind of thing that sticks,” she says. “Many young kids have so little control over their day-to-day lives that they’re more likely to hold on to things that give them a sense of power.”
Instead, Soles recommends saying something to the effect of “It sounds like you learned a new word!” and then explaining that the word may offend people, which may go against existing family rules of treating everyone with respect. While older children may understand the distinction between swearing at someone and swearing to express big feelings or swearing in the house versus outside your home, younger kids will have trouble making those kinds of distinctions.
Having separate rules for kids and parents is also ineffective, she says, and can serve to heighten a child’s interest in those forbidden grown-up words. The best way to eliminate words that you aren’t comfortable with your child using is not to use them yourself. (I am reminded of the time when my youngest child, as a sweet two-year-old, looked up at me as I was strapping her into the car seat and innocently asked, “Mommy are there going to be any douchebags today?”)
Punishing a child for swearing is also not an effective strategy. “Punishment doesn’t teach your child what to do, which should be the primary goal of discipline,” says Soles. “It instills fear, which is very different than respect.” She suggests sitting with your child and making a game of coming up with a list of alternative words she can use to express anger and frustration. “Even silly-sounding phrases and words out of context like ‘Asparagus!’ can appeal to a child’s love of nonsense and incongruity,” she says.
But what happens if, even after all the explaining and fun games, your child still prefers “asshole” to “asparagus”?
“Forbidding swearing is something you can’t ultimately enforce, so don’t engage in the power struggle,” says Soles. “If your child swears in a way that doesn’t keep with the values of your family, remind her that those words are offensive but she can choose a private place, like her bedroom or bathroom, to use them.”
Oh, Fudgsicle. I feel like my little asparagus might be spending a lot of time in her bedroom for the next little while.
This article was originally published online in April 2018.