Two Year Old Repeats Everything! - Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My two-year-old son and I were enjoying a visit to the zoo with my parents when, in the telling of a humorous anecdote, my dad used a phrase that no one would want to hear from a two-year-old.

Sure enough, at the same time my mom was raising her eyebrows at her husband’s disregard of their grandson, the little one was repeating the expletive. With perfect articulation, I might add. Honestly, I found it funny, but seriously, is there any way to prevent the phrase from popping up again?

Repeater’s Mom

Dear RM,

From your father or from your son?

Cussing is part of every culture. And as with other aspects of culture, that which is used over and over enables the culture to be carried through the generations.
If the expression is never uttered in your son’s presence again, likely it will be forgotten. Let’s assume that is not likely. Since Granddaddy’s language habits are probably well set by now, try to make him aware of the little ears that are close enough to catch everything uttered. Young children are language sponges, absorbing words, phrases, and inflections and not yet discriminant about “polite” versus “impolite” speech. If Granddaddy, and others in your son’s social sphere, are consistent in how and when they use certain words and phrases, your son’s language will eventually follow suit. Your reaction to his repetition of the potentially offensive phrase suggests that in this situation – among close family members – the use was acceptable. Assumedly, if persons other than family members had been within earshot, your reaction may have been different.

Along the way to language mastery you can expect your child to try out words and phrases with hits and misses. Should the phrase become part of your son’s everyday vocabulary, that is, by being used often in his presence, you will need to address it as “private” to be used only at home or with family (you may need to delineate which family members). You don’t want it to pop out at story time at the library! It is important not to overreact and label it as “bad” language since this may backfire when he’s four and words are used as weapons. It can also be confusing if what you are labeling as “bad” has been learned from beloved role models. (A minor point for several years hence in your parenting: When comedians, singers, and movie actors use such phrases – for laughs, effect, and substantial revenue - it is based on the approval of their audiences. Thus we have a rating system for age appropriateness!)

You probably have adopted words and phrases for toileting that meet your household standard, and use other words when out in public. “I gotta pee!” is perfectly acceptable between close friends and family members, and adorable in a preschooler, who may still depend on an adult’s assistance. However the phrase loses its charm as a public proclamation by school age. In a restaurant, for example, there are all kinds of euphemisms to choose from for “going potty” that you will teach your child by your example so as to spare him the embarrassment of being linguistically precise about what he needs to do.

By the same token, common mispronunciations and grammatical errors are also easily passed down. If your child only hears “birfday” and “ain’t” then these become his models of how to talk. There are regional differences in American English, such as “youse” instead of “you” for generations of Philadelphians and New Yorkers, and “y’all” for regions in the southeast. If this is what your ears are used to, it sounds perfectly normal. However, someone outside each of these cultural groups may be distracted by the difference, or worse, consider it improper. My personal ear-assault is the use of the third person when an adult addresses a young child – as in “Does Timmy want Mommy to help him with that puzzle?” The correct form of that sentence would use second person and first person: “Do you want me to help you?” “Does Timmy want Mommy to help him” is actually correct in formal Chinese. The only explanation I can find as to why this is common across regions and generations of English speakers is that it is simpler for the child to understand. While this may be true initially, the sooner the proper forms are used, the faster he will learn them.

Similarly, your child will learn to discriminate between language that is publicly acceptable and language that is best used in private by the repeated examples he hears.

Dr. Debbie

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