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A video went viral recently showing a mother egging on her toddler to shout profanities. When he did, the room of adults laughed and thought it was hilarious.

Well, sure. We laugh when we’re surprised – that’s what makes jokes funny – and it’s definitely surprising to hear four-letter words coming from a child who can barely talk at all. A lot of parents think this is the very definition of cute. Maybe you or your child’s other parent is one of them.

Most likely, no one actually taught the child to swear. Because swear words are said with a lot of emotional force, they stand out. Words that stand out in a conversation – words that seem important to adults – are words kids find important too. It’s also possible that someone did teach the child swear words. Cousins and older siblings might do that, thinking they’ll get the child in trouble. How surprised they are when grown-ups think a cursing baby is adorable!

However it happened, let’s imagine the baby swears. What now?

No matter how cute this seems, the charm will wear thin eventually. The toddler who cusses as a parlor trick will soon become a preschooler who tells his mother exactly what he thinks about bedtime. He will master more than just an isolated word. He will be able to be profane in whole sentences, sentences that will get him into trouble.

A preschool child or kindergartener who swears will get into trouble on the playground and at child care. He will be punished. And he will find the lessons in swearing he learned as a toddler very hard to undo. Because swearing is something he was once praised for, it almost seems disloyal to his family to stop swearing now. How can swearing be wrong if once it was so right?

We set our child up for failure when we teach him to swear. This is not fair.

Your child is not a toy. Life is not a movie. Real actions on our part have real consequences for our kids. We owe it to them to not create future difficulties for our kids just to have a laugh right now.

But if profanity is already spewing from your sweet child, what can you do? How do you turn things around?

  1. Quit praising your child when she cusses. Don’t smile, don’t give her attention, and don’t give in. Let her know you “can’t hear her when she talks like that” and wait for her to reframe what she wants to say.
  2. If the child is school-age, have a heart-to-heart talk. Explain what you don’t want to hear, ever again, and ask the child to help in keeping track of his swearing so together you can cut these words out of his vocabulary.  He can’t stop swearing overnight but he should be able to reduce his swearing over time, with your support.
  3. Stop cursing. Eliminate bad words from your own vocabulary and insist that others use G-rated language when children are around. Put your foot down on this but start by setting a good example yourself.

Kids repeat what they hear and they love to make us smile. Don’t let your child think that swearing is the key to your heart.



© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

Watch parents with tiny children at the zoo. They hold a baby up so she can see, mom or dad points a finger and says, “Look! Look at that bear.” That’s good. Conversation is good. Pointing is helpful. But what’s more helpful is doing more than just naming.

In a study at Northwestern University reported in the journal Cognition, toddlers whose parents told what the pointed-to thing was doing understood the name of that thing better. Saying, “Look! Look at that bear walking around” helps a child know what, exactly, you’re talking about.

Your own experience with preschool children bears this out. My grandkids often say, “Look at that, Grandma!” and point out the window… but I have no idea what I’m supposed to see.  It wouldn’t help me much if they said, “Look at that blick, Grandma!” because I wouldn’t know what a “blick” is. But if they said, “Look, Grandma! Look at that blick flying in the sky” I would know what to look for and I’d know what to call it.

The amazing thing is that toddlers think exactly the same way. They use clues embedded in our conversations to figure out the meaning of a new word.  It takes longer and is harder to learn a word just from the word alone.

This is why board books that tell stories provide a richer language experience than board books that depict just a single picture on a page with a single word identifying it. A story about a ball, bouncing down the roadway and bumping into a duck,  is more interesting and develops more language than a photo of a ball, followed on a later page by a photo of a duck.

Notice that telling what the unfamiliar thing is doing is key. Just saying “Look at that bear over there” doesn’t help too much. Over where?  Which of the many things in the direction you’re pointing do you mean? Linking the new word to a verb – to what is happening – gives a baby the information he needs.

According to the study’s author Sandra Waxman, “This shows how attuned even very young infants are to the conversation around them. It also shows how well infants build upon what they do know to build their vocabulary.” It also reinforces the importance of talking a lot with babies, even though it seems that they cannot possibly understand.

Babies understand more than we think and they figure things out better than we imagine. Talk with your baby and tell him exactly what’s going on.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

It just makes sense: kids who have large, rich vocabularies when they start kindergarten do better in school than kids who do not. In order to read words, for example, a child has to know words and be able to use them. So teaching children a large number of words during the preschool years is a smart move for parents to make.

Research has long backed this up. Studies have compared the number of words two-year-olds hear per hour and have come up with vast differences from child to child and family to family. In general, parents who have more education and more free time to spend with their children use more words in talking with them. These same studies have demonstrated that two-year-olds who hear few words per hour are less ready for kindergarten when they turn five than children who hear more.

Now a new study adds a new wrinkle. According to a paper from the University of Chicago, it’s not only the number of words parents use in talking with their children that makes a difference. It’s also the non-verbal cues – like showing or pointing – that helps children understand. Researchers found that nearly a quarter of the vocabulary growth preschoolers experience is determined by parents’ use of non-verbal cues.

For example, saying “Look at that zebra!” while pointing to the animal helps a child learn the word “zebra” more quickly than just saying, “Let’s go see the zebra.”

Another finding from this study was that a family’s wealth or poverty was not a deciding factor in children’s ability to learn to talk. What mattered was simply the number of words heard and parents’ use of pointing and showing to help children understand. But there were large difference there. Some parents provided non-verbal cues only 5% of the time while other parents provided cues 38% of the time

Of course, parents want their children to do well in school. But school success starts early, in the simple things moms and dads do with kids who are only two or three or four. Here are some ideas:

  1. Take time to carry on conversations. The more you and your child talk together, the smarter she becomes. For some parents, it seems silly to talk about the weather to a toddler. But once you make a habit of talking about anything and everything, your child will start to respond back.
  2. Take time to listen to your child. The way to know what words your child knows is to hear him use them in his own speech. To use words, a child has to have a kindly listener. Even though it sometimes takes kids a long time to say what they want to say, try your best to give them the time. Remember they’re new at this.
  3. When you talk, try to show what you mean. You can point to things, or pick them up. You can demonstrate words like “under” and “beside.” You can say something like, “I’m going to share my cookie with you,” emphasizing the word “share” as you break the cookie in two and give the child a portion.
  4. Remember that talking with your child costs nothing. No matter how advantaged or unadvantaged you feel your family is, you can start your child on the path to success just by talking with him. Conversation levels the playing field.

Being able to use a lot of different words is so important to children’s development. Show and tell your child what’s going on in her world, as much as you can.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

One of my sons’ families recently moved from a second-floor condo (in a three-level building) to a single family home. My daughter-in-law told me she’s noticed how relieved she is to not have to constantly “shush” her children, ages 4 and 10. Now that there’s no one to disturb in a unit above, in a unit below, or in a unit to the side, she feels she can finally let go and let her kids be kids.

A widely-distributed blog post this week addressed the same issue. The author makes the point that children naturally are loud. Trying to make them be quiet is frustrating… for everyone.

So here’s a challenge: take note of how many times during a day you shush your kids. Is being quiet the most important thing in your family, at least as measured by how many times it’s reinforced? You might be surprised by how frequently you shush.

In more formal times, the maxim “children should be seen and not heard” described ideal behavior. Children were expected to not to speak at all unless they were spoken to. But in a free society, shushing a child seems downright un-American.

Keep in mind that learning to talk requires not just listening to others (though that’s important) but practicing speech by talking too. Children who are inhibited from talking may have smaller vocabularies and smaller command of grammar and pronunciation, and they may be overshadowed in school by their more vocal classmates. We cannot have it both ways: we can’t ask kids constantly to be quiet then cajole them to “speak up!”

In addition, silencing our children silences more than their voices. It silences their opinions as well. The ability to think through problems and negotiate conflict requires freedom to speak one’s mind in a coherent argument. This is especially true when the speaker is younger and less capable than other people in the room, or when some groups of children (girls, for example) are shushed more than others.

Finally, keeping children quiet teaches them to “play small.” It makes being less-than a habit. Parents who are eager for their children to stand out can start by letting them speak out.

This isn’t to say that children have to yell all the time. Here are some suggestions that might make shushing a thing of the past in your house:

  1. Model what you want to hear. If you yell, your kids will yell, just to be heard. Instead of upping your volume to carry your voice over the din, speak more quietly. This means also to avoid calling loudly up the stairs… go to where the person is to speak with him.
  2. Turn down or turn off competing sounds. If the TV is always on, if video games or music is played at max volume, or if the dog barks constantly, kids will have to yell to be heard. Turn things off and train the dog.
  3. Get outside. What’s the point of having an “outside voice” if you never get a chance to use it? Make certain your children get outdoors every day and don’t make them be quiet when they run around and play.
  4. Listen to your children. Sometimes kids get loud just to get your attention. Don’t be too busy to listen, to admire, and to interact with them.
  5. Teach volume control. If you’re modeling your best indoor voice, your children will have an easier time knowing what speaking “normally” is. But they still will need to know – in a nice way – when they are speaking too loudly for the situation. Try suggesting, in a near-whisper, “Speak only to me” when your child is declaring things at the top of her lungs.

No one likes to be shushed. But we parents shush an awful lot. See if you can break – or at least reduce – your own impulse to shush.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.