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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.