Learning the nuisances of language can be challenging. Words have their definitive meanings but put into different contexts, can have additional interpretations. This makes it a bit more complicated when trying to explain swear words to children. Profanity is defined as blasphemous or obscene language, but that’s subjective and can depend on the social situation.
Many parents are caught quite off guard the first time you hear your little angel say a swear word. Maybe they aren’t overtly “swearing” per se, but they are starting to use language that might not be acceptable by everyone. As with most parenting situations, it’s time to have a conversation with your kid.
1Set House Rules for “Bad Words”
Even though words themselves are not innately “bad”, as a parent you are allowed to set some ground rules. This will vary depending on what you think should or should not be allowed. As a child, I distinctly remember that “fart”, “stupid” and “shut up” were not allowed at home. While these are not explicit swears, it was a clearly defined expectation that I was given early on. And it worked, for the most part.
Some parents may choose to let their kids use replacement words in lieu of actual swears. These tend to be something like “crap”, “shoot” or “freaking”. This, again, is dictated by the comfort level of the parents. Keep in mind, this has a rather limited ability to prevent your child from using the “real swears” in the future since they are already using them in that context.
2Explain Why it Might Not Be Acceptable Elsewhere
Since inappropriate language is subjective, it’s a good idea to talk to your kids about why it’s okay to say certain words in some situations, but not others. Saying “What the frick?” might not be a big deal at home, but places like church, school, or even another friend’s house may be different. It’s important to teach kids to respect the expectations in those places as well.
You also shouldn’t be afraid of voicing your concern to another child that is at your house. If you hear your child’s friend using language that you find inappropriate, it’s okay to let them know (gently) that “We just don’t really like that word, so we don’t use it here.” Most of the time, that’s that and everyone moves on.
3Determine Why Your Child is Saying a Swear Word
Understanding the reason why your kid is saying a swear word can help you determine the appropriate response. Your child’s age often dictates how you should respond.
For toddlers or pre-schoolers they could be experimenting with language. It’s unlikely that they really understand what the swear word means. They may have heard it elsewhere and are just “trying it out”. Alternatively, they are actually attempting to say a different word but it comes out sounding like a swear word (ex. “fire truck”). It’s also possible they think a profanity sounds funny or it elicits a reaction from others.
School-aged children are usually mindful of what swear words are and (probably) what they mean. Most of their usage stems from negative feelings (anger, frustration, hurt, etc.) or they could be trying to fit in with other kids. It’s possible this is also a means of gaining attention, even if it’s negative attention.
The best approach involves staying as calm and as non-judgmental as possible. Address the issue by asking what they think the word means, why they are using it, and how it makes them feel. For younger kids, it could be as easy as offering them an alternative word that is more appropriate. You can further explain how certain words can hurt others’ feelings or are disrespectful. For those that are still quite young, explaining exactly what a particular swear word means might not be useful just yet.
For the older kids, you can have a similar conversation but go into more detail about why someone else might be upset about certain words. If negative feelings are the driving force, offer alternatives to coping with these emotions (like yelling in a pillow, breathing techniques, or talking through their emotions).
As parents, we are not perfect. It’s not uncommon for a swear word to occasionally slip out under our breath in a stressful or frustrating situation.
Does this make us bad parents? Of course not. But if your kid hears it, acknowledge your mistake and explain what you should have done instead.
Remember, the house rules apply to everyone, including adults.
While you are never going to be able to totally control the way your kid acts or speaks, guiding them through these types of issues helps them make better choices overall.