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On Toddlers & Four-Letter Words

On Toddlers & Four-Letter Words

By Amalah

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?

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.

Published March 3, 2014. Last updated August 19, 2017.
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


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 Ama...

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 [email protected].

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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