As baby grows, we hang on every sound, every babble, straining to hear his first word. Whether it’s “Da-da,” “uh-oh” or the coveted “Ma-ma,” we delight in each utterance and rejoice in every new word. And then one day it happens: We’re driving, someone cuts us off, we voice a four-letter epithet, and we hear an echo. To our disbelief, our innocent child repeats that “bad” word.” Baby’s just as smart — but this time, we’re not so proud.
Now we’ve got a problem. We realize we can’t speak freely in front of the baby anymore. But we’ve been speaking fluent potty mouth since we were 15. And old habits die hard.
How they learn
It’s best to prepare for your child’s language acquisition while he’s still in utero, jokes Janet Jenness, teacher and parent educator at South Seattle Community College Co-op Preschool. “It takes a lot of patience, and it’s not easy to change,” says Jenness. But children understand language by about the age of 1, Jenness says, so the sooner we clean up our acts, the better.
Language acquisition begins with babies studying our expressions and mouth movements, and then imitating them, says Dr. Ben Danielson, clinical director of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic at Seattle Children’s. Once they are able to mimic sounds, children learn that they can communicate to get their needs met. Most babies learn a few words in the first year, says Danielson; then at about 18 months, they’ll echo what they hear, and around 2 years old, they’re putting words together.
Why that word?
Kids latch on to swear words because they understand that they’re powerful, says Rebecca Huntley, M.S.W., a South Seattle parent educator and author of The Sleep Book for Tired Parents. “Your child sees the look on your face before and after [those words]. They sense the power of those words. They’ve been learning to read nonverbal cues since birth.”
And if Mommy expresses anger or frustration by using the F-word, her child learns “this is how Mommy handles it,” says Jenness.
Adult potty mouth typically relates to the situation, Danielson says. “We’re more stressed when we hit our finger with a hammer or watch sports,” he says. In order to break the potty-mouth habit, Danielson suggests parents practice censoring themselves before hammer hits thumb and language filters are less accessible. “It’s important to model good coping skills around stressors,” Danielson says. Modeling wild emotional swings can make even a very young child feel less secure and stable, so the cooler we can be in hot situations, the better.
What to do with your cursing toddler
“S@#$, s@#$, s@#$!” exclaims your innocent 2-year-old. What do you do?
How you handle the situation depends upon the child’s age. By the time they’re 4 or 5, children understand “We don’t say that,” says Danielson. For toddlers, use your best redirection skills. Spark your child’s interest in something else — something fascinating — immediately.
Some strategies: You can pretend you’ve heard a slightly different word. “Sit? Did you just ask me to sit, honey?” Responding will ensure that baby feels heard, but experts agree that scolding just assures baby that the S-word guarantees a reaction. Another redirection strategy is to correct “pronunciation.” Responding to the F-word: “No, it’s f-uuu-dge, sweetie,” can appeal to a tot’s desire to learn new words.
Using your environment to redirect helps you think on your feet, says Kris Marion, a speech and language pathologist at Wonderland Developmental Center in Shoreline. If you’re shopping and Junior utters the F-word, try this: “Fork? I don’t see a fork. I see some picture frames and some boxes and some books. What do you see?” Now it’s a game that’s far more interesting.
Even if your child speaks fluent potty mouth, it’s not too late, says Danielson. Your child wants to respond to you and seeks your approval. Teaching him to voice anger and frustration appropriately will yield benefits for the whole family.
Maria Bellos Fisher is a freelance writer, blogger and mom. Her family-relationships blog, Hereditary Insanity, is available at mariabellosfisher.com/blog. She mastered potty mouth in junior high.
"Clean" expressions that will also do the trick
How do we sound cool when we’re feeling hot? We need to find new expressions that feel comfortable for us. Marion, Peck and others suggest you try one or more of these:
For the F-word: fudge, d’oh, phooey, flark, poo
F-ing: blessed, freaking, smurfing, stinking, flipping
F-ed: messed, fouled, slipped, flipped
For “Oh my God!”: Oh my goodness! Give me a break! Jiminy Crickets! Wubba wubba! Good gracious! Good grief! Oh dear! Good gravy! Golly Moses! For the love of Pete!
For the S-word: shoot, pits, sugar, shrimp, sheep, poopies, dooties
For the B.S. word: poppycock, bull, trash, bogus
For “Holy S-word!”: Holy stromboli! Holy moly! Holy cannoli! Holy Moses!
For the D-word: dagnabbit, flan, nuts, darn, harrumph, clamit, rats
The A-word/venting in the car (it’s probably better to quit this altogether, but until then): maniac, menace, dude, Bozo, dufus