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HomeFamilyParenting AdviceWhen toddlers use bad words — Good Parenting

When toddlers use bad words — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My 3-year-old is picking up new words and phrases every day. Today I was shocked with “Dammit!” being used with perfect inflection at an appropriate moment — some minor frustration with a toy. The expletive wasn’t directed to me, so I didn’t respond verbally —probably more so because I was completely stunned. How do I prevent further use of bad language?

No Cussing Allowed

Don’t miss last week’s column When kids are scared of costume characters — Good Parenting

Dear NCA,

Between the ages of 2 and 5 years old you can expect a young child to readily imitate the language of people around them as well as from any books, songs, and movies they listen to.
Young children are language sponges. Language imitation not only serves the vital need of two-way communication, it is one way that culture gets transmitted from one generation to the next.

That being said, cussing is part of every culture. To “profane” is to desecrate that which is sacred. Which of course, can vary from culture to culture. The purpose of profanity, of course, is to show strong emotion, often to verbally wound. Much of the world uses epithets about heaven, hell and other references to sacred spiritual beliefs. Body parts and bodily functions that are considered to be private are also commonly used to verbally assault someone.

While damning something or someone to an eternal inferno is probably the extreme curse, lesser curses take their variation according to cultural values. For example, a website that collects Yiddish curses offers: “May your only grandchildren be cats – and may you find yourself to be allergic.” I went to a Yiddish Sunday School and was taught by our hip college-age teacher that wishing misfortune on someone was the primary nature of verbal assaults in Jewish towns in Eastern Europe. “May a blister burst in your throat” had been a popular curse in the old country. Testing this out on my elderly grandmother, I asked her, “What does this mean?” My well-pronounced “a mak a dir in haltz” caused her to clap her hand to her open mouth as she gasped, “Ach! Vot you say!?!?!” In other words, the most offensive words are those that are offensive to the intended target or they are of no value. (It didn’t seem to lessen the blow when I explained that I learned it in Sunday School.)

Your household will establish its cultural language based primarily on what the household adults and other significant influences (close friends and relatives, oft-read children’s authors and regularly watched media characters) say. To tell your child that something is a “bad” word can be confusing if it is used by a beloved role model, and may backfire, especially at age 4 when words are used for power and control.

So use your words wisely and try to respond to the thought rather than the words. “That toy is hard to work” will move your child past needing to express this thought in not so desirable words. When you use examples of “polite” speech in appropriate circumstances your child will eventually learn to discriminate between out-in-public and at-home speech, and all the various formal and informal social settings that may be encountered in life.

By the age of 6, a child can be helped to understand that certain words and phrases make certain people uncomfortable. Children up to age 7 are concrete thinkers, so give concrete examples. You can also give some generalities so they can eventually learn to apply rules in future situations when they don’t have as much adult supervision as now, for example close friends may be okay with using some words and phrases among themselves that would make an adult uncomfortable to hear.

Cussing happens to be part of our language and mastering its use comes in developmental stages.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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