Kids and Swearing
By Moira McCarthy

Let’s admit it, the first time your child swore you either: a) Laughed; b) Pointed at your spouse and said “A chip of the old block”; or c) Flipped out and begged your child never to say that again.

What should you have done?

None of the above, according to Brian Murphy, LICSW.

“The best reaction is very little reaction,” says Murphy, who treats many children in his practice and hears a lot of swearing. “The best thing a parent can do it to clearly and simply describe the rules of language in your home, explain the meaning of the word and why you don’t like it used, and offer a substitute for the word.”

But they’re just so darn cute that first time they cuss, aren’t they? Murphy maintains that a clear “Dagnabit” or “Oh, sugar!” might be just as cute, and come off as a bit more innocent.

How, parents sometimes wonder, does swearing come in to a child’s life? According to speech therapist Sherri Miller, M.Ed., the main source is, of course, ourselves.

Preschool is often the place children first pick up some of their more colorful phrases, but according to preschool teacher Karen LaLinde, that isn’t bceause they’re meeting the wrong type of kids in preschool.

“I see those words used as a show-off type of thing, with children tossing them out not even knowing what they mean,’’ said LaLinde. “Other children pick up on it as sort of a peer pressure thing. What do we do about it at my center? Like most, we try to cut if off quickly, but without giving the swearer too much negative attention. Attention is attention, after all, and some children are just looking for that.’’

If you child comes home from preschool with a new profanity to show off? Tell the preschool teacher the next school day, LaLinde advises.

“If we haven’t caught the situation, we can deal with it then. If we have, we can tell you how we dealt with it,’’ she says.

IN-RIGHT: 0.4in">“Parents tend to think that they don’t need to watch their mouths until the child begins to speak,” she said. “Well, the child begins absorbing language as young as 12 months old. It’s very important to watch the way you speak and the language you use around your child and in your home at all.”

IN-RIGHT: 0.4in">Murphy agrees. “Don’t expect your children to stop swearing if you don’t stop swearing.”

IN-RIGHT: 0.4in">Consider the following: Brendan, 6 years old, was on the sidelines of his soccer game when the other team scored a goal.

IN-RIGHT: 0.4in">“Holy f**king s**t!” He screamed at no one in particular. His mother was shocked, but his father was embarrassed. “That’s just what I do when we watch the Patriots,” he said sheepishly. “Who wouldn’t?”

IN-RIGHT: 0.4in">And yet, we shouldn’t.


IN-RIGHT: 0.4in">When do you know your child has a problem with swearing?

Eric was 4 years old when he took calling the local preschool girls assorted crude names. His mother, recently separated from his father, fought to get him to stop. She tried calm discussion and long time-outs. Eventually, she resorted to yelling, punishing, even spanking. His vocabulary only got worse.

A situation like Eric’s, which spirals out of control and is coupled with other problems in the child’s life, can signal trouble. “Especially in an older child, swearing can be a sign of hostility, depression, loneliness; being pissed off at the world,” Murphy says. “If the child is also hitting a lot, crying easily when he or she didn’t in the past, it’s a sign of a problem. Look at the total picture. The swearing could be part of a trauma a child cannot handle.”

Both Murphy and Miller agree that parents who react, especially negatively, may just feed the swearing frenzy.


Eric’s mother, who did not want to use her name, knows that now. “I just got more and more angry, because to me, his language was verbal abuse to other children,” she recalls. “He was only a little boy, but he was bullying with words like I wouldn’t let an adult do. I know now it had a lot to do with the divorce, with the changes in his life, and yes, with my wild reaction. We’re trying to rethink it all now.”

Murphy offers this technique for parents struggling with swearing children: Give the child a roll of quarters at the beginning of the month. Place a “swearing jar” in a prominent place. Any time the child swears, he or she must put one of the quarters into the jar. At the end of the month, any quarters still in the roll are the child’s to keep.

“There’s no struggling here,” he says. “A child can easily put a quarter in the jar, but can also feel a loss. A child can see concretely the effect of the swearing by seeing the roll get smaller. And in the end, there’s positive reinforcement with the quarters that are left.”


There are books on the subject that come at the issue from a child’s perspective.
Elbert’s Bad Word, by Audrey Wood (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich). This entertaining and well-written book deals with a little boy’s first contact with a particularly ugly word. “The word floated by like a small storm cloud. It was ugly and covered with dark, bristly hairs.”