Updated: Jun 25
Once, when my daughter was 10 and learning all kinds of new curse words at school (beyond those she’d most certainly learned from her sailor-talking mom), her dad told her that she could have one minute to say all the bad words she knew. Just one minute, he said, and then it would be over.
It was a little like telling her she could have ice cream for dinner. She was overjoyed.
We were out on our patio. Charlie counted to three, and then Maxine went for it. I mean, SHE WENT FOR IT. It was a litany of screamed curse words so shocking that Charlie and I instantly were thrown into a fit of laughter.
You get the picture. We’d opened a seriously disturbing can of worms.
“Stop!” we implored her. “Stop! Stop!”
All three of us were laughing-crying by then.
“That was a terrible idea!" I finally said.
“No," Maxine said, beaming ear to ear. "It was a GREAT idea!”
That was not Maxine's first trip to the cursing carnival, of course. (As some of you may recall from my first book: At age 2, after failing to make it to the toilet on time, Maxine looked down at the pool of urine at her feet and said,"Jesus Christ." It's exactly what I would have said in the same situation.) And if you have a child over 3, chances are fair that you've been hit with a swear word or two yourselves.
When my niece was 3, she walked up to my brother while he was watching "The Big Lebowksi" on TV and said "Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.” Without changing his facial expression, Larry just picked up the remote and changed the channel.
Last year, a friend sent me a video of her two children, ages 3 and 5, eating dinner and chanting the words “Fucky-dammit! Fucky-dammit!”
“Where’d you guys learn that?” my friend asks.
“Fucking dammit?” the 5-year-old says. “Daddy.”
The camera pans to her husband.
“They’re like little sponges,” he says.
What to do about childhood cursing depends a lot on the situation. Ignoring the child’s language and moving on, as my brother did, is a solid play. (Recording it and sending it to your parenting-writer friend is a close second.) Usually, as in both these cases, the cursing is temporary and acts as an amusing wake-up call.
But other times, the swearing is less of a wake-up call and more of a five-alarm fire. For whatever reason, these kids have felt permitted, or even encouraged, to engage in our cursing habits (or The Dude’s habit, if you want to pass the buck). And that can get stressful really fast. If you have an ongoing problem with your child’s language, ignoring it or laughing it off are probably not your best options.
Instead, try this:
1. Watch your language.
Obviously, right? Yeah, but it needs to be stated. Our kids will always follow our lead. You might not care, but their preschool teacher will care very much. This is your starting point.
2. Don’t overreact.
Don’t panic. Don’t yell. Don’t punish. Cursing is something all children test out (particularly around age 4, when "potty talk" starts to really take off); no reason to shame them for being normal. Overreactions can lead to hurt feelings, and the child may be tempted to hurt you back. Remember, a hurting child who knows you have no tolerance for cursing is a child who may just turn those curse words against you. (A double-whammy!)*
3. Set your limit kindly and with conviction.
Not my limit. Not Grandma’s limit. YOUR limit. I want to make this clear: Limits are incredibly important to children, but they range from family to family and change over time. Maybe your limit is no swearing, ever, regardless of time or place or age of the child. Maybe you are fine if your 8-year-old uses certain "lighter" swear words. Maybe you don’t mind if your teen swears at home, just not in public. Whatever! Your limits for your family are for you to decide. But when you decide on your limits, make sure they’re explainable (“Certain words are off-limits because they make people very uncomfortable,”) and, when you set your limits, do it kindly without being wishy-washy. Just look your child in the eye and state the limit matter-of-factly.
“Sorry, kiddo, cursing is not okay.”
“The F word is only for grownups.”
“That is a word we only use at home.”
Be prepared to repeat your limit a number of times before your child rids himself of the habit. Rome wasn’t built in fucking day.
4. Consider a mutual agreement.
People often ask us how we enforce limits without consequences or rewards. The answer often lies in mutual agreements. In ParentShift, we talk a lot more about this — but one thing you might do is picture a circle with a smaller circle inside it. The inner circle is where the limit goes; it's strong and reasonable and not open to debate. The outside circle is the place for mutual agreements. It's an area where brainstorming and creativity and negotiation live. The outside circle is how you make the limit more palatable for your child.
In this case, for example, your limit might be:
The mutual agreement around that limit might be that your child can:
Choose an alternative word: Darn, dang, freaking, fudge, etc.
Use a journal to write down the curse words he wishes he could say.
Choose a noise or made-up word to use when angry. (“Grahhh!")
Then, if your child drops an F bomb, you can keep your cool and help him out of the habit by saying: "No cursing. What can you do instead?"
5. Keep your eyes on what matters most.
Now let's revisit that day four years ago when we let Maxine say all the bad words she could think of in the span of a minute. I can't, in good conscience, recommend this tactic. But I can't not recommend it either. If I’m being honest, it’s one of my favorite memories. Plus, after that, I think Maxine always felt more comfortable telling us things she’d heard at school, knowing we were likely to handle it with humor.
And, in our family at least, that's the real win.
* One important note: We are talking here about little kids repeating bad language. If you are in a situation with an older child who is cursing at you, the issue is not the swearing — it's the relationship. Best to ignore the language and focus on the feelings beneath it. When your relationship is truly back on track, you can address the language.
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