Handling a swearing toddler

Oh shoot. Dang. Darn. Baby has picked up some new vocabulary and wouldn’t it be great if they hadn’t?

Have you thought about why you don’t like it if Baby swears? If you’re going to be correcting their behavior, it’s important to know why it’s important to you that you fix it.

Some swearing is considered rude. The idea of “rudeness” comes from breaking social rules that are really complicated for a toddler to understand. For example, think about how behavior is supposed to change depending on where your toddler is eating. The rules for how to act are different depending on if they are at home, at a restaurant, a really nice restaurant, or a children’s restaurant for a birthday party. That’s four different sets of rules for how to act just when you’re eating! The idea of words that are only acceptable in certain situations, or when said by certain people, can be confusing in the same way.

Other words can be specifically offensive to a particular gender, race, or culture. Offensive words usually have historical meaning, or are meant to be insulting based on who a person is. Baby might be getting good at their letters but they probably isn&;t ready for a social studies lesson.

So how can you teach your toddler not to swear if they won&;t understand why a word is rude or offensive?

  • Make one label for everything: You can let Baby know that a word is “bad” and explain that using it might hurt someone’s feelings. Keeping track of one group of “bad” words will be easier than different groups of different kinds of bad words.
  • Keep it consistent: If you don’t want Baby swearing at a friends house, don’t let them swear at home either. If bad words are always bad it will be easier to learn not to say them.
  • Be understanding: When Baby says something really offensive, they doesn&;t understand why it’s so wrong. Harsh punishments like spanking or washing their mouth with soap are likely to make them act out more, and more importantly, they won’t teach them anything about treating other people respectfully.

Control how you, and others, react

Baby loves to get a reaction from you. Positive or negative, when Baby does something and you respond, they learn something new and exciting about interactions.

One of the best strategies for dealing with swearing is to remain neutral and not react at all. If you explain that something is a bad word, try doing it without being angry. You might also be tempted to laugh when Baby curses. Try to avoid laughing or smiling if you can, and let friends and family know if Baby has been using a certain word recently so they’re also ready to stifle their laughs.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s positive or negative reinforcement, reacting is likely to lead to more swearing, not less.

Give them something new to say

Swear words are powerful! We use them to express strong emotions and communicate those emotions to others. When a toddler hears one, they're likely to want to try it out for themself. In that case, giving them a different word to use can help.

One option is to come up with a new curse word, specifically for your family, like “shabadoo!” or “frickles!” that’s safe to use in your home. You can also teach Baby to simply express what they&;s feeling out loud, so a swear word turns into “I’m real angry!” or “I don’t like this!”

If you have strong reactions to the new words you’ve come up with, when Baby is upset, and show no reaction to typical swear words, Baby will learn pretty quickly that they doesn’t need to swear to get your attention.

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