For Cindy Addison, it was the words used at her son's surprise party that left her surprised.
It all started when she put a few trick candles on her 4-year-old son's birthday cake. "After a few tries, Jonny got so frustrated trying to blow the candles out that he told the cake where it could go," she remembers. "I don't think he made a wish that day, but I know I wished I could have crawled under a rock."
The first time your child curses can be startling, that's for sure.
"Kids tend to start swearing between the ages of 3 and 5, although children with older siblings may start swearing at an even younger age," says Dr. Cathryn Tobin, pediatrician and author of The Parent's Problem Solver (Three Rivers, 2002). Preschoolers have a knack for picking up words, especially new ones spoken with any kind of emotion. Eventually, your little baby is going to blurt out something foul, no matter how sheltered you think she is.
There are many reasons kids use bad words, but it's rarely for the reasons grown-ups use them. "Swearing is a child's safest way of feeling what it's like to be a grown-up," says Lauri Berkenkamp, coauthor of Because I Said So: Family Squabbles and How to Handle Them (Nomad, 2003). Then again, they could be cussing to get a reaction, to establish their independence, or to innocently imitate what they've heard someone else say. "The thing to remember is that kids love attention, even if it's negative," says Berkenkamp. That's why knowing the right way to quell your little cusser is extremely important. Here are some rules to swear by -- or rather, to not swear by.
The first time they slip up, don't punish. But do immediately sit them down and set the guidelines for future language use.
"Establish which words are considered 'bad' in your house before you think of correcting the problem," says Berkenkamp. "Make it clear why certain words aren't acceptable in your family, regardless of who else uses them." Then be sure your kids know there will be consequences and appropriate discipline for any further use of bad language.
"Swearing doesn't have to be the separate issue some parents make it out to be," says Berkenkamp. "Kids are sensitive, so explaining how certain words may hurt someone just as much as if you had hit that person can sometimes do the trick."
Finally, end the discussion by reiterating what disciplinary actions you'll take if they intentionally swear again. "Establish right from the start that you won't tolerate that language being used, and always follow through," says Tobin. "However, you should also let them know that if they hear a word they aren't sure of, they can ask you freely about it without fear of getting in trouble."
"You can't just tell them what not to say, you have to teach them what to say," says Tobin. "The next time your child swears, be prepared to give him an alternate word to use instead of just telling him that word is inappropriate." Creating a substitute for the swear, such as "blast," "shoot," "dang," or "crud," can work. Or try something really silly like "ga-ga-ga-goink" or anything that makes your kids laugh. They'll be more likely to want to imitate those words instead.
The more attention you pay to it, the more kids will realize the power of their words. "We all know attention actually encourages a child to repeat foul language," says Pam Farrel, author of The Treasure Inside Your Child (Harvest House, 2001). "A simple, calm response is always the best approach." If your child is young (2 to 4 years) and doesn't understand what she's saying, ignoring the word can work sometimes. If it persists, then "pick a one-line response that's emotionally neutral, such as 'Those aren't very nice words to say,'" says Tobin.
One more thing: Curbing your emotions always applies to laughing. "Sometimes, what innocently slips from your child's mouth can be hilarious, but try not to giggle," says Berkenkamp.
"Hearing bad words may be inevitable, but there still are ways you can minimize how much they're exposed to swearing," says Farrel. The more commonsense solution is monitoring any places they may be picking up any extra words (the playground, TV, older children), and don't leave yourself out of the lineup.
"You can't expect your children to have a better choice of language than you do," says Berkenkamp. "Every time a four-letter word pops out of your mouth, you're setting a silent standard of what's okay to say." Instead, try to curb what you say in front of them, and always apologize whenever you do slip up around them.
Whenever your children get mad or hurt, yet manage to say words that aren't offensive, compliment them immediately after their outburst for acting like adults and being respectful. "Many kids curse to feel older, so making them think they're acting more adult for not swearing may make them stay in control of their words more often," says Berkenkamp. Telling them they're smart for not swearing can work also. Remind your kids that anyone can swear, but it's the smartest kid who can figure out how to express himself without using bad words.
"Young kids can get obsessed with talking bathroom talk," says manners maven Berkenkamp. In her house, if the kids wanted to have bathroom talk, they could only do it in the bathroom where no one else could hear them. "It can be an effective way to make your child learn social boundaries. It also makes them become bored with the words a lot faster," says Berkenkamp.
Most preschoolers don't have a clue what they're saying. "Sometimes giving them an idea of what a word means, without being too detailed, can be enough to embarrass them into not using it as often," says Tobin.
Whenever you and your child hear an offensive word on TV or in public, show disapproval by saying, "I can't believe he just said that." Remind them you don't approve of that language. Studies have shown that not reacting to offensive actions around kids can cause a significant increase in their antisocial behavior later.
It sounds a bit old-fashioned, but having your kids pay a quarter every time they swear can be a huge deterrent. "Kids respond to the incentive of losing money," says Berkenkamp, "but only if you also lead by example." Just be sure the money never goes to buy something they may benefit from (or else they may not mind as much when they lose it).
Ask your kids what silly punishment should be given to anyone who swears in the house. Involving your kids lets them solve the problem, which can make them feel more grown-up than swearing does.
Originally published in Better Homes & Gardens magazine, April 2004.