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What to do when your toddler says the f-word

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When it happens—and it will happen—part of you will want to laugh, part of you will want to cry, and all of you will wonder how in the heck it happened. I mean, you did say the word, but you also said a million other words along with it. Seriously, kid? After all those unsuccessful lessons to get you to say “please” and “thank you,” you come out with this? For the love of God, why?

For starters, says Toronto-based family counsellor Alyson Schafer, author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids, you probably said it with gusto, which made it sound dramatic. You also may have clapped your hands over your mouth or reacted in some other way that made it more intriguing to your child. But there’s likely an even more mundane explanation: Kids mimic everything we say and do, but this stands out to us because of the inherent shock value of the word.

Boy with bowl cut and wide eyes
I taught my kid every swear word I knowThe more important part of this, according to Schafer, is what you do after that fateful word escapes your child’s lips. “The first time the child swears, they don’t know what they’re saying,” she says, “but if they get a big reaction, they’re like, Wow, I don’t know what that word is, but boy, did that ever get a rise out of my mom or dad.” And, of course, that can lead them to say it again and again (and again), as they test their boundaries, try to exert their independence and wield some power.

Incidentally, this is also related to the reason that they might not be saying those polite words you’ve been insisting on. “If you’re constantly saying, ‘Say please, say thank you,’ the child perceives you as controlling,” explains Schafer, “so they’re ego bound to defy you by not using those words in order to keep their autonomy and to prove to you: You can’t make me.

Subtle teachable moments are more effective. Model the good behaviour yourself—whether talking to your children, other adults or even stuffed animals during imaginative play—and mention how lovely it is when they use good manners.

And to ensure your child doesn’t start swearing like a sailor on the regular, try these tactics:

Ignore it

This works particularly well for young toddlers, who may have tried to say “duck” or “fork” and something else came out instead. Feel free to correct the pronunciation of the word they were attempting to say, just as you would with any other word, without making a huge deal about it.

Use it as a teachable moment

Explain why certain words can be inappropriate or hurtful, and matter-of-factly lay out the rules of what’s acceptable and what’s not. After all, how will they know unless you tell them?

If the behaviour continues, “spit in their soup”

Schafer says this is psych talk for calling out kids on the reason they’re doing something naughty, which can make it a whole lot less interesting. “You can say, ‘You really like to shock adults,’ or, ‘You really want us to know that you know big words and you want to impress us with your bad vocabulary,’” she says. “Sometimes just saying what mischief they’re up to is enough for them to not want to do that kind of mischief again.”

Give toddlers the power they so desperately want

This is really the key to it all, says Schafer, and it comes in the form of seemingly unrelated things like letting them pick out their own clothes or allowing them to sit on their knees at the table instead of using a high chair when they’re ready. “Our kids really want to be grown up, and the more we try to keep them small, the more they’ll find alternate ways to show us how big they are,” says Schafer. “As soon as your kids can be independent and autonomous, let them be so they don’t have to make these bids to seem big.”

Basically, you’ve been engaging in a power struggle you had no idea was going on. Now that you know, you can manage the situation more effectively and have a better chance of making it through toddlerhood with your sanity semi-intact…or at least without a mortifying potty-mouth moment in front of your mother-in-law.

Read more:
Don’t worry, your toddler is not a jerk
Why your toddler insists on watching you poop

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I am a father of three and my wife is a registered nurse specialized in children.

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