Help! My 3 Year Old Just Dropped the “F” Bomb!

By Cindy Kuehner

There’s nothing quite like the first time you hear your child use a profane or otherwise inappropriate word. Bet you won’t think, “…words can never hurt you.”, then! Some parents will be shocked; others, not so much. Some parents will be embarrassed; others will laugh. Some parents will wonder where he picked it up; others already know. Our reactions to a child swearing will vary widely, as we do, and they will depend on our upbringing, values, and perception. In addition our response should be tempered by context. For example, a toddler repeating a word she’s just heard on television is different than an angst-filled teen hurling swear words as weapons. If you as a parent would like to curb your child’s use of inappropriate words, here are 6 steps that may help.

1. Pick up your jaw

You might be tempted to indulge in a knee-jerk reaction, but the first time you hear your child utter an inappropriate word, resist the urge to make a big deal about it. Watch your facial expressions especially and try to remain as close to neutral as possible. You don’t want to telegraph your feelings in your body language or on your face this time. Since the beginning of spoken language, “shock value” has been the primary driver for one who intentionally curses. Kids are smart. If yours learns that she can get attention from you by simply using a particular word, it will be harder for you to correct.

2. Set the boundary

Once might be the only time your child uses this objectionable word, but if it’s repeated, it’s time to deal with it using more direct steps. This time tell your child, “This is not a word we use.” Or, “This is not a word we say at school.” Resist the urge to call it an “ugly word” or a “bad” word; we don’t know where he or she picked it up. It’s not only possible, but probable that your child will hear it again—maybe from someone she respects and trusts. To avoid the complications of “value judgments”, deal only with behavior.

3. Offer—and train—an alternative

Work on replacing the inappropriate word with a suitable alternative. Calmly and matter-of-factly direct your child to use this different word or phrase instead and make sure to reward him when he does. If he refuses or forgets to use the alternative, remind him that it’s the only way to get rewarded. In most cases, gradually, he will associate the alternative with positive results and begin to select it instead.

4. Take advantage of ‘Teachable Moments’

If your son or daughter uses this word in front of other children, you can use this as a lesson opportunity. Teach the other children the new, appropriate word or phrase and reward them when they use it as well. It will be easier for your son or daughter to choose it when his peers are doing the same.

5. Watch your own behavior

Children are fantastic; little mirrors, modeling themselves after the people they admire or spend time with. If you find yourself slip up, simply say, “I should not have used that word. I should have said…” and carry on.

6. Manage the TV

According to Nickelodeon, in a study prepared for its advertisers in late 2013, children just turning 9 and younger watch 35 hours of television per week. To put this into context, we are talking about the maximum number of hours allowable for working in one week in France! Combine this fact with the following information:

  • ABC’s Desperate Housewives is the most popular broadcast-network television show with kids aged 9-12 according to Nielsen stats.
  • According to Nielsen the top TV shows for 12-17 year old girls were: American Idol, The O.C., Will & Grace, and One Tree Hill. The top TV shows for 12-17 year old boys were: The Simpsons, Malcolm, and The O.C.
  • 2004 Super Bowl: Nielsen estimates that 6.6 million kids 2-11 were watching at about the time that CBS’s little halftime fiasco developed when Justin Timberlake ripped off a piece of Jackson’s bodice, exposing her right breast to the nationwide audience. Another 7.3 million teens 12-17 were tuned in at that time as well.
  • On December 10th, 2003, Fox failed to bleep the f-word and the s-word during the Billboard Music Awards.
    • 
# of 2-11 yr olds Watching = Over 1 million
    • # of 12-17 yr olds Watching = Over 1 Million
    • These two groups comprised more than 20% of the total viewing audience.
  • 44% of kids say they watch something different when they’re alone than with their parents (25% choose MTV)

With the right plan, determination and consistency, you can help your children modify word choices, when necessary, and choose appropriate words that communicate exactly what thoughts and emotions they want to express. Be patient. As with any behavior change, it takes time.