Toddlers and the “F” Word

An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:

My husband uses foul language against my preferences, and my daughter has said the “f” word on several occasions. Usually I say, “We do not use words like that,” or something to that effect. However, I am wondering if parents with more experience would have a better way of responding to a child cursing.


Here’s what our natural parenting mentors had to say:

Seonaid: Confession time. Although we worked hard on cleaning up our language while I was still pregnant, all three of my kids have picked up the occasional piece of inappropriate adult language. However, none of them have held on to it for longer than a couple of weeks (or months, at most, in one case, and for one word).

So, I have three pieces of good news about this. The first is that your child, although they may be using the word “correctly” and in context, has absolutely no idea what the word means. As far as she is concerned, it is just the noise that you use to express frustration, anger, pain, or whatever other situations in which she is using it. This gives you a perfect opportunity for diverting her. Rather than focusing on the word that she is not supposed to use, you can provide a more appropriate word for her to use in those circumstances. For example, “phooey,” “rats,” and “darn” have all been effective in our house.

The second good news is that almost nobody will fault her for using foul language, although they might occasionally think uncharitable things about you, unfortunately. If you find that uncomfortable, I offer you the following perspective on the situation. I once found myself pushing my first son in his stroller while he cheerfully announced, “Mommy should not say sh**!” I quietly replied, “No. And you should not, either.” He is now eleven years old, and perfectly respectable in public (and private) situations. In my opinion, the most important part of this was staying calm, and realizing that getting myself worked up about people’s responses was the best way of making sure that he kept doing it, because pushing buttons is a favorite activity of most kids.

Which brings me to the third piece of good news. If you do not make a big deal out of it, and she does not get a lot of attention for the language, she will probably drop it pretty quickly. My youngest recently strung together a random string of syllables and came up with a swear word that we do not even use. He got such a reaction out of us that he kept doing it, if only for the humor value. This is the only time that it has taken more than a couple of weeks to clear an inappropriate word from the language, and we finally had to try this explanation, “That is a word that only adults are allowed to use. You know just like how coffee and beer are only for grownups? Some words are like that, too. It will really upset people if you say that, so you need to think of other words to use.” Then we offered some other words that would express the sentiment AND that would be OK to pass along to the other kids in his class. I hope.

Stacy: I do swear sometimes, and my kids have copied me and sworn, but that is the way kids are. They are our mirrors, and sometimes they are fun-house mirrors, showing us our behaviors in new and unusual (and not always pleasant) ways. In this case, your daughter is mirroring back behaviors of your husband’s.

I would recommend that you really explore what about your daughter’s swearing you are uncomfortable with. Maybe you are comfortable with her swearing in the privacy of your home, but would be embarrassed elsewhere. Or maybe you feel it is inappropriate for children to swear. Or maybe for anyone, regardless of age. I think understanding where your comfort and limits are will help you approach the situation with your daughter more neutrally. And by neutrally, I mean with a sense of clarity and openness, not an attempt to suppress your true feelings. I have tried the latter, and my kids always pick up on it!

Secondly, I try to avoid saying phrases like, “We don’t _______.” When I look closely, I realize it is not a true statement, and I think it can serve to confuse a child, because who is the “we” in this sentence? If my child is doing the behavior I named, is he or isn’t he part of “we”?

I prefer to come up with something more specific to my own feelings or preferences. So, to my kids I might say, “When you use words like ______, I feel uncomfortable. I would like you to use this word instead.” What works better for me is to simply state back how I wish they said it. So, for example, if your daughter says, “Swear word!” you could say, “Gosh darnit!” I have done this with great success for things like “please” and “welcome.” I do not ask my children to say something in a nice tone, I just say it for them as I wish they had said it, without any energy of correcting them. They almost always repeat it after me. It’s uncanny.

Lastly, I explain to my kids that some people are okay with swearing (like her dad…or me!) but other people are very uncomfortable hearing certain words, so to be respectful of others, I ask them to not say these words while playing with other kids. I am not sure of your daughter’s age, but my older son, who is seven years old, understands this completely. I hope this is helpful!

Amy: Swearing is one aspect of parenting that can elicit a strong response, for both parents and kids. If a parent swears in front of the kids, or they hear it elsewhere, many will try on the behavior. Habits can be broken, though, by children and adults.

Since your partner is swearing at times, you might employ an integrated approach when your little one curses. As a parent who does not force obedience, anything you actively resist is likely to continue. Although you want to provide guidance at times, it may help to internally accept what is occurring before you take any outward action.

This starts with the breath, acknowledging any tension in your body when you hear the swearing, and moves to the actual thoughts you are having about the swearing and the response you are choosing. While this might sound a bit in-depth for the question you asked, your child can feel you at all times. If you are calm and grounded in the way you are directing your child, she is more likely to respond in a favorable manner.

At two-and-a-half years of age she may be a little young for reasoning, although that depends on the child. Still, you can begin a conversation about the reaction some people have to such words or their general meaning. She may be able to understand that even though Dad says those things when he is mad or feeling passionate, there are other things to do when you are feeling strongly. Model those other activities, rather than saying, “We do not use words like that.”

You might talk to your spouse about modeling a variance of language and expression in addition to or in replacement of cursing. Aim to remain as nonjudgmental as possible as you talk about cursing in the family. Truly, words are just labels. If you both offer her alternatives to swearing, she may pick those up instead.

Talk about your process out loud. “I feel frustrated (or really excited) right now. I am going to take a deep breath. Do you want to breathe with me?” While some people may replace the “f” word with “shucks,” that may only exasperate the issue and not really give her a way to express herself that allows for healthy communication (something to consider as you navigate the cursing path).

Mainly, notice what you do not want and think about what you do want for your daughter in those moments. Direct her toward that with a smile and love in your heart.

3 Responses to Toddlers and the “F” Word