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Oh, my! What did your child just say? Where did he learn that? And what should you do now?

Kids say the darndest things, and often in a voice that can be heard across the room and within earshot of your pastor or your mother-in-law.  How you respond depends on the age of the child.

Preschoolers barely able to put a sentence together love to say bad words (which they say well enough that everyone can understand them, amazingly). Like a sailor’s parrot, they’ve picked up on words that are said with enough force and emotion – and clarity – that they’re easy to mimic. A bad word stands out because it’s supposed to stand out – it represents all the emotion the speaker is feeling at the time – and the little kid just learning to talk naturally learns this word. He is, after all, learning words at the rate of 5 or 6 a day, every day of the week. Bad words are just part of the vocabulary.

What seems cute, however, at age three will become annoying at age six, when your child means the mean words he says and uses them as an adult would. If your child is four or older, now is the time to make the point that some words he will hear frequently are off-limits. This means, of course, that they’re off-limits to you as well. You’ve got to model what you want to see (and hear). Because at ages four to about seven swearing is not a well-established habit, you’ve got an opportunity to lay down the ground rules and make them stick.

But what if swearing and cursing are pretty much everywhere in your child’s life? Her friends use bad language and that’s what she hears on television and in her music. Even the books she reads include profanity. Should you ship her off to a remote mountain peak where the only voices she hears are the voices of the birds? Well, no.

If your older elementary school child (or preteen or teen) uses bad words routinely and you despair of getting him to stop, then teach the very valuable lesson of choosing the appropriate time and place. You can tell your child you don’t care how he talks with his friends but you expect cleaner language around you and at school. You can reinforce this with a penalty jar (a dollar deposited for every bad word you catch) or in some other, reasonable way. The idea that “there’s a time and place for everything” is a key concept for successful adulthood, with many applications beyond bad words. It’s a good thing for your older child to know. By the time your child is in third grade, he can monitor himself and fit his language to the situation.

Speaking is a social skill. Knowing how to adapt a message to fit present company is a social skill too. Teaching your child how to do this – and doing it yourself when you model the vocabulary you want to hear – is more than just being pragmatic. It’s helping your child be welcome wherever she goes.


© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.