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On Toddlers & Four-Letter Words

Mar03

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Hi, Amalah,

Love your blog and the Advice Smackdown. I have a question I hope you can help me with, and as a longtime blog reader, I suspect you can.

We have a 21 month old who has made the complete transformation from darling child to utter and complete mimic. While most parents at this point, or nay, even perhaps earlier, would change their behavior and stop cursing as part of their daily vernacular, we, more me than my husband, have not…and don’t particularly care to stop cursing.

Growing up, my parents took the unorthodox approach that we could use whatever language we wanted at home but couldn’t say curse words when we were out. I suspect, however, that my toddler is not capable of making the distinction between home and not at home.

While I happen to think it’s hilarious to hear my little angel say, “Oh, f*$k,” I think/know my friends will not be amused if their little ones learn these new words from my kid.

So do I have to, gasp, stop cursing for a while or risk alienating all my friends? I hope the answer is no. Did you handle this with your kids? Have thoughts if not?

Thanks,
Cursing Mom

Golly gee, I just have no earthly idea why you thought to ask ME, of all people, about how to handle a potty-mouth around impressionable young children. Why, I’ve never uttered anything harsher than the h-e-double-hockey-sticks haaa haaa I’m kidding yes of course I have been there because my mouth is terrible.

It actually took us longer to get “there” than we thought, since one of the dubious benefits of having a speech-delayed firstborn is that they generally skip over the mimicking stage. But then that just meant we were doubly lazy about watching our language by the time our second baby was born — and THAT baby, of course, started repeating everything we said from his first birthday on.

The good news is that the mimic stage is relatively short, once their expressive language skills take off, and by 2 or 2 and a half you can generally start explaining the distinction between words we say and words we don’t. (We say please and thank you. We don’t say shut up, we don’t call people stupid, we don’t say eff this effing crap all to hell, for example.)

The better news is that the words and phrases they repeat as toddlers don’t usually stick. (See: Baby Pearl, and The Landlord video. They fed her a few choice lines for her to dutifully repeat, and have since sworn in multiple interviews that those words never cropped up in her speech again. Having raised several toddlers now, I completely believe this.) Just because you’ve let choice words fly and heard your son repeat them doesn’t mean they are now solidly part of his vocabulary.

The exception to this, however, are words and phrases that get a Big Reaction of some kind from grown-ups. So while it IS hilarious to hear a perfectly timed “Oh sh*t!” come from your toddler after he drops something, the best course of action is to keep your delight to yourself and ignore it. Because as you know, it’s funny at home, not so much at the neighborhood play group. Maybe get one or two home videos of it for future laughs…but after that, poker face.

The same goes for your own mouth. The more expressive your outburst, the more likely your toddler is to repeat it. Which is why so many of us find it easier to watch our use of curse words in casual conversation around kids (yours and other people’s), but then get in trouble while driving and some *#$)* cuts us off and #@$ @&#(, you @#(+ing #@!. My kids will completely ignore any curse words my husband and I use while casually talking about our day to each other, but the instant one of us shouts something in the car or after nailing ourselves on a piece of furniture, THAT’S when they perk up and start mimicking or asking questions about what we just said. So I try to focus my tongue-biting in these instances, rather than eliminating all curse words from my vocabulary 24/7.

You will probably need to hold off on the home language vs. not-at-home language approach, however. I think that’s reasonable for a much older tween/teen, but as you know firsthand, cursing quickly becomes a habit that’s hard to break. (And even as an adult, I’m sure you can remember times when you let a word slip in a completely inappropriate time/place.)  Not every kid is capable of exercising such self-control.

We usually call curse words and other “mean” things (like shut up, stupid, name-calling, etc.) “bad guy talk” to explain the distinction when the kids are preschoolers, and then once they’re a little older it shifts to “grown-up words.” Just like grown-ups are allowed to use the stove and knives and drive and drink alcohol (albeit most definitely not all at the same time) and kids aren’t, there are words kids shouldn’t say. Why? Well, it’s just the rules of school and other people’s homes and I don’t want them getting in trouble. So it’s best if they just not say certain things in front of other people. It’s just a good manners thing, the way I see it.

I personally don’t like calling curse words “bad” words (THEY ARE JUST WORDS. RANDOM STRINGS OF LETTERS AND SOUNDS TO WHICH WE HUMANS HAVE ASSIGNED MEANING.), however that seems to still be what 99% of other families go with, as my school-aged children have all come home with endless questions about whether “crap” is a bad word. What about heck? What’s the difference between dang it and damn it? What about (child utters the f-word)? It’s all kind of silly, but I still find that staying matter-of-fact and not acting shocked or amused is the quickest way to help them lose interest in those words and phrases. With our 8 year old, we focus less on the actual words and syllables and more on the manners and social aspect: Would the people you are talking to like hearing that word? Would your teacher? It doesn’t bother me but it does bother some people, so it might not be polite to say all the time.

(I made the mistake early on to getting REALLY UPSET over the “shut up” thing once, and I swear I’m still paying for that, as my kids still think it’s like, the worst possible thing you can say to someone and will hurl it at each other when they think I’m not listening.) (And then queue the “MOOO-OOOM, so-and-so told me to shut uuuuupppppp” nonsense.)

Interestingly enough, I was raised in a household where even the mildest epithets were forbidden. And I don’t just mean hell or damn — I wasn’t even allowed to say crap or butt. So naturally, as soon as I got to an environment where cursing was allowed and even expected (summer jobs in high school), I found it to be thrillingly freeing and quickly learned to curse like a sailor, and then belatedly had to learn to control my new habit in certain circumstances. I really don’t want that to be my kids’ experience, but I do recognize that cursing is not hilarious or adorable to everyone, and my children should respect that.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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17 Responses to “On Toddlers & Four-Letter Words”

  1. Whoat Mar 03 at 3:59 pm Reply Reply

    When discussing the risk of stumbling into inappropriate parody videos while clicking around YouTube, my daughter once said, “Because they might have grownup words, like ‘stupid’ or ‘fuckin'” 

    Yes, honey. Like one of those.

  2. Cheryl S. Mar 03 at 5:50 pm Reply Reply

    I hate the “Bad” words thing too. There are no bad words! But, like you, I end up having to describe them that way.

    Here’s my cursing kiddo story. When Jess was about 3 we were at the gas station. My husband was doing something with the car and was mumbling under his breath about it. After this had gone on for a few minutes, Jess (my sweet, darling angel) pipes up from her car seat “I think what daddy means is ‘Fuckin’ car!'”
    Um. Yup. That’s exactly what he means!

  3. Wendy Mar 03 at 5:56 pm Reply Reply

    My husband and I don’t feel such importance should be placed on simple words, but we have to keep the peace with school/grandparents etc. When our children started to repeat words, we just let them know which ones were inappropriate for them to say.  We let them know that grown-ups are allowed to use certain words and children are not.  Then sprinkle a little of the all too familiar “That’s just the way it is”.  They don’t have to like the rules, but they understand as there are lots of things that are acceptable for adults and not children.

  4. Karen Mar 03 at 6:00 pm Reply Reply

    Last night I really hurt my finger trying to shut the bathroom window while my 4 year old was in the bath and yelled “fuck” as expressively as I could manage (and for the first time in her life). This is not the same as casual f-bombs while driving home from work with her in the car.

    I don’t think Amy really answered it specifically, but I think, gasp, that limiting language that 99% of the rest of the world finds to be crude is not really asking too much. It doesn’t even have to be “cursing” but if a child that we see regularly uses crude language or whatever that is appropriate for their family but not ours, then it’s nothing personal, different strokes for different folks, but we won’t be as regular in our contact.

  5. Bonnie Mar 03 at 6:35 pm Reply Reply

    I thought we were doing great on this front until I was talking about God one day, and my 18-month-old finished, “dammit!”

    Oops.

  6. Mona Mar 03 at 7:50 pm Reply Reply

    We struggled with this with our oldest, but managed to clean up our language around the kids pretty quickly- especially after the disapproving looks from grandma & grandpa. I absolutely have zero tolerance for mean talk, though- “shut up” is way worse than any curse words.
    It was initially harder to watch the naughty words at home- happily I am able to make up the daily quota at work.

  7. Stephanie Mar 03 at 7:58 pm Reply Reply

    We definitely limit cursing, but it usually comes out when we’re driving. My favorite story is when some guy was driving slowly in front of my husband, who was grumbling about it. My daughter yelled, “Move over Jack Black.” I love that she thinks we’ve been saying Jack Black instead of Jack A$$, but still, we’ve been trying to stop this.

  8. My Kids Mom Mar 03 at 8:00 pm Reply Reply

    I did the “playground words” versus “grandma words” and my kids got it. It started with “what the…” which I discussed with him and found out that *some people* say “what the heck” (he had to whisper it) but that I thought it was better that he avoid the phrase entirely b/c someone might think he was planning a different word. I am perfectly ok with them using words for “playground cred” but they need to learn to watch their audience. Around grandma, or a preschool audience? Keep it clean. I’m a preschool teacher and always found there was a moment of hesitation before I swore, during which I checked out my audience to decide what was ok.

  9. Jeannie Mar 03 at 9:53 pm Reply Reply

    I also thought I was doing ok, until I braked suddenly once and my recently two year old said “j*sus!!” From the backseat. I was not proud (but I admit I laughed).

    Since then we have focused on “grown up words” and how it’s inappropriate to say them, and I’ve tried to keep cursing to circumstances I *really* need it. After all, one day, my kid will use the word(s) and should know how … 

  10. Autumn Mar 03 at 11:17 pm Reply Reply

    I’ll be honest, we watch our language very carefully around her.  She will repeat the most random stuff. . . current is “that’s very dangerous” referring to an onion particle in salsa.  Not really kid, but okay.

    The friends who don’t really bother to clean up their vocabulary, we don’t see very often.  We give a bit more leeway to those without children, but I feel proper language is a huge part of manners.  And something I won’t have to unteach later.  

  11. susan Mar 04 at 12:18 am Reply Reply

    I wouldn’t worry about it too much. My now 4-year-old can correctly conjugate the f word at home but has never said it at preschool. (it’s a co-op school so I would definitely know). In fact, I’m not sure she’s ever uttered ‘bad words’ outside of the house.

    We have kept our reaction pretty minimal, though she has said some pretty colorful and hilarious things. 

  12. susan Mar 04 at 12:21 am Reply Reply

    I meant to include that kids observe our public behaviors, too. They notice what words/tones of voice, etc. we use where and mimic that, too. So as long as you’re not a sailor while standing in line at Target, you’re likely fine.

    • Kat Mar 04 at 1:33 pm Reply Reply

      I think it’s funny you mention that. My husband is a Marine and therefore thinks it’s fine to curse like a sailor (since he worked on ships and such…). Even in front of  the kids. I’ve struggled with this for a very long time. My 3 year old told me a while back that he f*cked it up when he broke something… I didn’t think this was very funny. What if he says that at the sitters? I’m not religious or very uptight about language, but I don’t want him to get in trouble with the rest of the world, either.

  13. Susan:) Mar 04 at 2:23 pm Reply Reply

    I’ve never been big on swearing and I’ve always used substitute exclamations, especially as a preschool teacher. Things like fudge, fiddlesticks, sugar. In the car, if someone drives me crazy I usually say What a dingbat. Well my nieces know now, when we are in the car, I’m likely to say that! Once, the car in front of me did something really annoying and I exclaimed, What a dumbbat! My then 3 yr old niece thought this was hilarious and began repeating it. But she pronounced it ” sumbat”. Since I didn’t want them to get into name calling in general, I started making up silly words and turned the whole thing into a game. We came up with other words like moonbat, catbat, tigerbat, etc. Now they like to say all those words, but only in the car! I haven’t heard them use any real swear words yet, but they have repeated the phrase “What the heck?” They also like to say “Oh brother poop”. I try not to react to that one as it drives me nuts. I hope they outgrow that one soon!

  14. Jessica V Mar 04 at 6:05 pm Reply Reply

    I love all the stories that y’all are sharing here! So funny. Both of my boys at a very early age blurted out the f-word related to driving (my oldest said “I say f$*K, like Daddy!” and my youngest used to holler “F@*#K, Dammit!” every time he heard a car horn – including when we beeped our car door shut). That will never not be funny to me.

    Also, recently my oldest proudly announced that he knew “the bad words that started with a, b, c, and d.” I nearly had a heart attack wondering what he though the c-word was, because as much as my husband and I both have potty mouths – we never use “c u next tuesday.” Fortunately, his version was crap.

    Phew!

  15. Olivia Mar 05 at 3:35 pm Reply Reply

    I love this advice! I try so hard not to curse around my kids, but sometimes nothing else will do. There’s a study that shows a well placed curse word can relieve stress and reduce pain. I grew up in a home where curing wasn’t a big deal. My mom didn’t go around dropping f bombs, but I watched movies with salty language and what I remember is that those words didn’t mean anything to me. They are just words, and I really doubt 99% of the world thinks they are all that bad. We just know it’s supposed to be bad so we try to accommodate that.

  16. Shelly Mar 27 at 4:15 am Reply Reply

    I am from the South, so they are not bad words, they are ugly words.  I will admit that I am following in my mothers footsteps,  I have been known to drop an “Oh Jesus, or Jesus Christ “and immediately follow it with “I am not cursing, I am calling for help”.  My husband is a horrible potty mouth And I was eagerly waiting for the baby to drop an Fbomb in front of my mother.  Nope, baby girl went with “dammit” and followed it up with “but that’s what Mommy says”. 

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