How to Handle Your Child Cursing

Let’s talk about cussing. Swearing. Droppin’ F bombs!

Anyone who has been with me knows for a good long while knows that this is a show aimed at adults and therefore I swear on it-, sometimes prolifically. Over the years I’ve had many people comment on it, and many be curious about how I prevent my children from swearing when I’m saying fuck and damn and shit all over the place.

Your children are your children, and you get to decide what the rules are for your children.

I’m going to outline what the rules are for my children, why I chose those rules, and how I enforce them.

If you’re still uncomfortable with children cussing or you don’t want to allow your children to cuss, you do you.

That’s cool.

Yes, I do allow my children to cuss and I have allowed them to cuss since they could speak. My husband and I decided to do this for several reasons but the biggest one is that we swear, I can and do swear in 3 languages, so it felt really hypocritical to ban it for our children when we do it.

There’s also several studies that have come out on the use of swear words- and there’s evidence that people who swear tend to have higher IQs, tend to be more emotionally intelligent, have bigger vocabularies, and have a higher tolerance for pain.

The only real negative I could find about swearing was that in some social situations, some people may consider you less classy or cultured.

Objectively the benefits appear to outweigh the negatives are far as I’m concerned. 

How does this play out with young children?

I’m sure you’ve all seen that meme that floats around now and again where a Mom is trying to convince her baby to say Mama or Dada, or baba…and then she drops the bottle she’s holding and says “Shit!” and in the next frame the baby goes “SHIT!” and the Mom looks really defeated. The implication is that kids will always pick up the shit we don’t want them to say, so watch your language.

When I was in early intervention, I came on to a team that had a fabulous SLP, and during my first meeting with her she told me: say everything like you’re cussing it with this kid. I must have looked at her funny because she clarified: kids repeat swear words because of how we say them. There’s variation in tone, we say them forcefully, we often yell them, and there’s a lot of emotion behind them.

Children pick up on words that convey a clear emotion through the tone they’re said faster.  When we say them everyone stops and looks at us and pays attention to us. Every target word you’re working on with this kid I need you to cuss it because he picks it up so much faster. He sure did it felt kind of strange sitting there going “SPOON!”…but you can bet your boots he turned around and said it back to me and that was a trick I used with multiple kiddos after him- if I needed them to practice a word- I’d say it like an expletive.

The reverse is also true, if you don’t want kids to say something, you need to treat it like a boring old word.

I told my husband, okay, if we’re going to swear in front of our kids it needs to be something we do frequently and it needs to be mostly boring. Now, of course, there were times when I’d stub my toe, especially on the step stools we keep in the bathroom so the kids can reach the sink…those things are always in my way, but I’d stub my toe and scream “fuck!” at the top of my lungs cause it hurt. My husband’s response was always “you alright?” He didn’t give it this huge reaction.

I believe because of this, my children didn’t actually mimic our swearing for quite a while.

Now when they did eventually mimic it, we had some rules about when we would acknowledge it and when we would ignore it.

The first was that we’re fine with our children swearing as an exclamation or at an inanimate object, but not at people.

If they drop something and say “shit”…cool. If they’re frustrated because they can’t get a snap done upon their costume and say “this fucking costume won’t do up”…whatever.

We wouldn’t allow them to walk around calling someone a fucker or a piece of shit or telling someone to go fuck themselves.

Swearing at someone isn’t acceptable.

If they were swearing in a context we were okay with, we just didn’t comment on it or give it any reaction whatsoever. If, however, we heard them swearing at someone which I believe only happened once per kid but I may be mistaken- we pulled them aside and asked them if they knew what that meant.

As I said, children will learn words based on the tone they’re said with, and are often able to use them in context-based off of that alone.

The understanding of the definition of the word generally comes later after having used it and having it understood in many different contexts. More often than not, if a child is cussing, they don’t actually understand what they’re saying. They understand the tone, not the word.

We always lead with that do you know what that word means?

Pretty much all the time they say no. Which makes it very easy for you to provide a definition.

For instance, when my then-5-year-old son said “fuck you” to his Dad, I was able to explain that fuck is a word for the act of having sex. Do you know what sex is? (I knew he did because we’d had that discussion already.)

What you just said to Dad is that you want to have sex with him, is that what you meant to say? No, huh.

What were you trying to say? Then help them figure out an appropriate way to say what they were trying to communicate. Every child who I have used this approach with has been horrified by the dictionary and even urban definition of the word they used, and most of them never use it in my presence again.

Once they have the knowledge, they use it.

When in doubt lead with curiosity. Do you know what you said? What were you trying to say?

Grab the scripts for crazy-making behaviour and know exactly what to say next time your toddler, preschooler, or kindergartener isn't listening.

The second rule we have is know your audience.

My kids are welcome to cuss in my home and in our vehicles but there are places cussing isn’t acceptable and we’ve told them that from the get-go.

We don’t cuss at school, it’s not an acceptable place to use those words and if you choose to do so you will likely get in a lot of trouble.

We discourage them from cussing in front of my parents because my parents are extremely religious and take umbrage with it. We’ve told them that cussing in front of Nana and Grandpa isn’t appreciated. They also know that Grumma and Grumpa don’t care if they swear and are much looser with their language around them.

These are rules I’ve told them from the time they could talk.

My older son, he’s 8 now, but he was hyper-verbal as a toddler. His first language is sign language, but once he figured out how his mouth worked he started talking and hasn’t stopped since.

I remember being in my car with him, and his Dad was driving, and he waved to get my attention and said and signed “Mama, why can’t I say fuck at Nana’s?” and saying “Nana and Grandpa don’t like it, but you can say it at home.”

He asked me a few clarifying questions and then went back to whatever he was watching on his tablet.

Children are actually extremely good at context, as long as the context is made very clear.

My younger son was speech delayed in large part because he had this hyper-verbal older sibling who wouldn’t let him have a word in edgewise. He picked up the rules from his brother, and I’ve had to correct him once or twice.

On the whole, my children rarely swear. Which is surprising given I don’t listen to censored music and I don’t censor myself, neither does my husband, and we live a stone’s throw from the largest military base in Canada and therefore are in a lot of social situations where there’s a lot of grown adults not minding their language.

They tend to use pseudo-swears, for instance, my 8-year-old will say “flip” instead of fuck or “shoot” instead of shit. I’ve asked them about it and they said they just don’t feel the need to say it.

I asked if their friends use them and my older son said that one of his friends does because his Mom and Dad have banned it at home so he says it at school when there are no teachers around “to get it off his chest” …which I found funn but it jives with my personal observation that the less of a fuss I make of it, the less appealing it is.

This how I handle it and how I advise my clients to handle it:

Choose what your limits are, where it’s okay and where it isn’t, and make those limits clear to your child.

When they do cross those lines because it will happen lead with curiosity and help them find another way to express themselves in that setting rather than morally pontificating at them because that just makes it more appealing.

As always, we want to teach our kids what to do rather than focusing on what they did wrong.

I hope that gives you an idea of how you can approach cussing with your kids if it’s become an issue in your home.

As always, if you’re trying to figure out where the lines are for your family, come and join us in the Parenting Posse group and we’d be happy to talk it out with you.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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