Sooner or later, it’s bound to happen – your child comes home from school one day and asks you “mummy, what’s the F word?”. You take a big gulp as your mind starts scrambling to formulate a calm answer. Or maybe your child has dropped their first F-bomb and you’re worried it’s the start of something not so beautiful. Either way…it’s led you hear, which is just as well because today we are going to outline what to do (and not do) when your child starts swearing.
So without further ado, let’s hand over to Melissa Hood, founder of The Parent Practice who you may also recognise from our Parent Practice series to help us handle your child swearing like an absolute pro.
Why does a child start swearing?
Children of all ages use words that others may find offensive, ie swear. A recent survey found that almost half of children aged 1-3 swear. And more than two thirds of children aged 4-7 swear. They do so for different reasons at different times in their lives:
- Younger children are usually exploring language when they use a swear word. They’re testing words to try them out and see what effect they have and to establish meaning.
- They may swear to elicit a reaction from the adults.
- Older children may swear to express a strong feeling.
- They may swear in order to fit in with their peer group –everyone else is doing it.
- It may become so much a part of everyday speech in certain settings that they use it whenever they want to add emphasis ie “I had a f***ing awesome weekend.”
Before a child starts swearing, they may what the “f” word is – what should parents reply and how much explanation is needed?
In fact this is not my experience. Rather than asking about it beforehand children generally take their parents by surprise and it just lands in the conversation one day. Parents can be very shocked and often have a dramatic reaction which can lead to more swearing. If a child asks what ‘f***k’ means parents need to respond with an age-appropriate response that is right for that particular child.
They should try to be calm as there is every chance the child does not know what associations the word holds and them using it does not denote any kind of moral depravity.
I would respond along these lines to a primary school aged child: “I’m glad you asked me. It’s sensible to know what a word really means before using it. It really means to make love or have sex which is a nice thing for adults to do when they love each other. But often you hear it being used in a way that doesn’t mean that at all. It is used to be unkind, to hurt people’s feelings. We don’t use it like that in this family.”
Once a younger child says a swear word, what should a parent do?
The key is to stay calm and not judge the child for it. Dramatic reactions will be exciting and may elicit further examples of profanities. Even if they already know that using those words can provoke the parent that’s a message to the parent that the child needs to learn other more appropriate ways to get attention.
That means the parent needs to pay a lot of attention to the good things the child is doing. He will switch over to whatever approach gets him the most attention. That doesn’t mean ignoring the swearing –the parent should explain their values and state their expectations. I would get the child to say what they want to say again without the swear word.
And what immediate action should parents take if an older child starts swearing?
“You know that in our family we don’t use words like that.” That needs to be true. If the adults are swearing then you will not be able to tell a child not to. Adopt a non-judgmental approach. Something like:
“I know that many of your friends talk like that and I’m sure you want to be part of the crowd. I get that. It’s our family value that we treat everyone with respect and this is disrespectful language. Even if you feel the need to speak like that with these friends you’re old enough now to know what’s appropriate where and modify your behaviour accordingly. So I don’t want to hear it at home, ok? And I don’t want anyone else to hear you using language which could offend others in public. I can understand it might slip out if you hurt yourself or when you realise you’ve forgotten to do something but then I’d expect a quick sorry. Everybody slips up sometimes but generally you can behave in a considerate manner. And you do. Like just yesterday you….”
How important is setting a benchmark regarding language in the family?
80% of parenting is modelling so if the adults are not setting the example for the behaviour they want to see it will be an uphill battle to get the children to modify their behaviour. Parents need to be clear what their values are and to communicate them clearly to the children but they also need to be acting in line with those values.
Can you share five tips for reducing or avoiding swearing in children?
- Don’t over-react when children swear. Don’t ignore it but respond calmly and without judgment. Don’t punish.
- Explain what the word means in simple terms. Eg “That’s a crude word for a woman’s private body parts. You know the proper word to use. (or name the body part if unknown)”
- Discuss your family’s values: “We speak to people in respectful ways. We don’t use words others might be offended by. We don’t use words like that to hurt or to get attention. If we want to get attention we have much better words for that.” Some words might be acceptable in your family that aren’t in others, such as saying ‘God!’ as an exclamation.
- Descriptively praise your child for using appropriate language in situations where they might otherwise have sworn.
Be aware of where your child is picking up inappropriate language and do what you can to minimise exposure to it, eg check ratings, supervise and reduce any video or music content that has offensive language in it.
If you had to give a pep talk to a parent whose child has started using the F word out of the blue it would be….
It’s always most effective to consider the reasons for a child’s behaviour. If they are using it to express feelings they need to know that it is ok to express feelings of frustration or anger but that there are other ways to do it. They will probably need coaching in this.
Whenever you see your child feeling angry or disappointed or jealous… or anything, describe those feelings to them so they build up a vocabulary of emotions and an awareness of their feelings. Coach them in what to do with those feelings beyond using words.
They might need to give vent to them physically as well by running or punching a pillow. They might be able to calm themselves by listening to music or being in nature or splashing water on their face. Teaching your child that feelings are ok and how to manage them is a fundamental life skill. It’s also important to learn how to tell someone if you’re unhappy with them in ways that get your needs met but don’t hurt. This sort of thing is very useful to practice in role play.
If they are swearing in order to fit in with their peer group empathise with that need to belong but coach them on how to gain acceptance in other ways. See if they can think of some good jokes or start up some good games. Practice some good conversation openers together.
It can sometimes help to think of some alternative words like ‘fudge’ or ‘shivers’. My younger sister amused the whole family when in a moment of 3-year-old frustration she called my older sister a ‘skateboard’. It became a family malapropism to express displeasure with someone else.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Some families have a ‘swear’ jar. Any member of the family who swears puts a coin in the jar and when it is full it is donated to the charity of their choice.
We hope the above advice about what to do when your child starts swearing useful. Do feel free to leave any further questions or experiences you may have had in the comments below.
Picture credit: People photo created by drobotdean – www.freepik.com