Q: My partner and I disagree on how to deal with bad words with our kids. He uses foul language when he’s frustrated and doesn’t see that as a big deal. I do. I don’t want our kids walking around swearing when they’re mad or stub their toes. How should we handle this?
A: Once, when I worked in an elementary school, a child got a hold of the overhead system and said every bad word they knew before the microphone was taken. Between the power that comes from booming your thoughts to 500 other kids, and the power that comes from using “bad” words, I can only imagine this kid felt like the Master of the Universe for those five seconds. And while many of us adults were amused, his parents understandably were not. How do we make sure our kid makes different choice when given that moment of power?
First, talk with your partner. With an open mind explore your own and your partner’s philosophies on swearing. Sometimes we get stuck on a rigid belief that something is “good” or “bad” but upon further exploration we find it’s somewhere in the middle, or doesn’t fit our thinking now and we’ve just held onto it for reasons that no longer exist. When you’re both clear with yourselves and each other on what you believe, work together to find a compromise about the policy at home. It’s important to present a united front on rules so kids aren’t confused or start playing parents against each other.
You’re right in noticing that the emotion your partner uses with the foul language is an important factor. Kids might not understand the definition of a word but it’s not hard to figure out from the accompanying emotion what it means. And children are little recorders, playing back language just the way they heard it. Sometimes kids are simply trying out new language, or doing it to get positive or negative attention from someone, but sometimes it’s used as a real expression of their feelings when their language is still limited.
While it’s tempting to ban words, that’s almost certain to have the opposite effect of what you want. Think of it this way: you wouldn’t say to your children, “Whatever you do, don’t ever go into this room because there are a lot of fascinating toys in there you can never play with.” You would expect at some point your children’s curiosity would get the better of them, right? So it is with words, which aren’t even behind a closed door but rather right there on the tip of their tongue! Additionally, parents often ban words in the heat of the moment, meeting the child’s anger with their own anger. Fear of punishment might stop the child’s use of prohibited language in the moment, but could encourage them to practice it in the privacy of their mind. It’ll pop out later, purposefully or by accident.
And let’s face it, unless your child does not and will not be exposed to other people, books, movies, TV shows or the internet, they will certainly learn all these words at some point. The goal isn’t to keep them from being exposed to words but rather to give them all the information they need to make their own good choices about what language to use. In an age-appropriate manner, teach them what the word means (literally and culturally); how it can affect other people; how it can affect how the user is viewed; and that it’s a weak substitute for more clear language about thoughts and feelings. Then, give them that other language.
Start with the basics: sad, scared, mad, hurt. As they become more comfortable with them you can get into more nuanced language: lonely, excluded, embarrassed, ashamed, worried, terrified, irritated, furious, etc. Help them come up with language for their thoughts also, since thoughts lead to feelings. What did that event mean to them that they ended up having such big feelings about it? This will not only help them develop strong language skills but also help you empathize with them during their struggle and strengthen the bond you have with them.
Then when you hear them using bad words, calmly redirect them to a better choice (and of course if the language was aimed at another person you might employ your regular consequences for being unkind). You could turn it into a fun moment by challenging them to come up with a silly word or phrase they can use instead. You’ll be grateful for it when they one day get their hands on a microphone.