When Jody Billard’s then three-year-old daughter, Hanna, started swearing—loudly and in the middle of a store—Billard was appalled. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. At first Billard was baffled as to how Hanna picked up her colourful new language, but she eventually traced the offending words back to Hanna’s grandfather.
Preschool, the playground, a friend’s birthday party—your kid is picking up vocabulary anywhere he goes at this age, and swear words are simply a natural part of that development, says Timothy Jay, a swearing researcher at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. In a study lead by Jay in the American Journal of Psychology, children aged three to five had a vocabulary of 30 to 40 “taboo” words, the most common ranging from traditional swear words to things like jerk, stupid and poop head.
Kids curse for all sorts of reasons: Maybe they’re angry or have hurt themselves and have heard you use certain words in similar situations. Or they might think it’s funny and are trying to get your attention. Sometimes—at least at first—they’re simply curious about the words. “They’re trying to figure out how words fit and where they can be used and what response they get,” says Julie Freedman Smith, a parenting coach from the Calgary company Parenting Power. The way you respond to this can have a big impact on what happens next. “The power of the word and its ability to linger in a child’s vocabulary is usually tied to the reaction of the parent.”
Billard found that out the hard way. She remembers worrying that others would judge her parenting when Hanna started swearing, so she gave her time outs and lectures in an effort to stop it. But she thinks Hanna liked this attention, and it caused her swearing to escalate. So she and her husband decided to take a different approach. “We ignored it. It was really hard, to have this little three-year-old use such inappropriate words and tone. But the swearing eventually went away.”
Freedman Smith recommends calmly and matter-of-factly saying something like, “Oh, you learned a new word. Do you know what it means?” Then discussing your expectations for that word, based on your family’s values. “Every family’s going to be a bit different. Some families don’t care about certain words and others do.”
If your kid is swearing when she’s angry or hurt, help her find other words to express what she’s feeling, says Jay. And if she thinks her new vocabulary is the funniest thing ever, encourage her to practise her comedic skills in other ways. Whatever you do, don’t laugh (yes, this can be hard!).
If the problem language continues, consider it an opportunity to start teaching tact. Many adults swear when they’re around friends but not at work, for example. “We all learn to choose words for situations. We learn when it’s appropriate to say something and when it’s not,” says Freedman Smith.
She suggests telling your kid to go to the bathroom or her bedroom if she wants to use a problem word. By giving her the choice to use it in a more acceptable environment, you’re telling her you believe she’s capable of managing her words. “You can say, ‘We never use that word,’ but there’s no real way of enforcing that. The real lesson is where is it OK to use these words and where is it not.”
Jay recommends giving kids a little leeway when they’re learning the ins and outs of swear words—especially since many adults don’t model it well. “Our data shows most parents have rules about swearing in the house, but most of them break them.”
And of course, if your kid is picking up his new vocabulary from you, it’s time to rein in your own potty mouth. “If we’re expecting them to control the words coming out of their mouths, we need to control the words coming out of ours,” says Freedman Smith.
Billard is happy to report that Hanna’s language isn’t quite so colourful these days. “We have conversations about what’s appropriate and what’s not. At the time, her swearing wasn’t funny at all, but we can laugh about it now.”
While it’s important to talk to your kid about problem language, you don’t need to give a lecture every time your kid says “poopy head.” “Have a quick sentence in your pocket to use when you need to, like, ‘I think you meant to say,‘I’m mad,’ and then move on with your day,” suggests parenting coach Julie Freedman Smith.
A version of this article appeared in our December 2015 issue with the headline “Potty Mouth” p 54.