Inclusion and wellbeing

What do you do when toddlers curse like sailors?

How to respond when children are trying out hurtful language
January 19, 2022
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

In this story, guest author Ellen Drolette takes us through how young children start to understand rude and hurtful language, and how they might experiment with it in your classroom.

• When you hear children letting loose with rude language, it's most important to not get angry, or show frustration. This can turn the language issue into a power struggle, as children will use it more to seek attention.

• Down at the bottom, you'll find a list of quick tips to help you respond to children's rude language, both in the moment as well as long term.

My daughter was about two years old when she said her first curse word, and she was an early talker. There was no doubt in our minds she overheard this word being used by either myself or her father. She was quietly playing with her little Fisher-Price doll when we heard “Fu…..” My husband turned and said, "Excuse me?" to her in a tone that she likely knew what he was asking.  

She immediately responded with, "I didn't say it. The little man said it," pointing to her doll. So it began. 

I have some words that are huge triggers for me, more than any of the regular curse words we all know and love to use from time to time.  ‘Stupid’ and ‘shut up’ are the ones that send me off the deep end.  

As an early educator, I have heard lots of potty talk. The words have been used as an adjective and a noun.  Whether they are on repeat usually depends on how I react. The children have tried them out on me for size, and no situation or way to handle this issue is ever the same.  

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What do we need to teach children about swearing?

It’s worth noting that not all potty words are created equal. The words poop, pee, and poopy head (not used as an insult) are common in my workplace, for example. When children use mild words like this, I ignore it. And after many attempts at ignoring it, talking about it, and ignoring it some more, I’ve seen the behavior has been snuffed out some. However, there are times when some behaviors just stick.

I went through a two-year cycle of some strong potty humor in my childcare program. Often, the language resurfaces with a vengeance when I least expect it, and it is as if the children know it annoys the $h*! out of me. Pun intended. At the beginning, I think my obvious frustration allowed this situation to turn into a power struggle game for the children.  When one child started saying “poopy” at the table, it spread like a wildfire I could not begin to extinguish. 

I have heard of some families that allow their children to use the potty words in the bathroom if they feel the need to say them. I also know a family that only let their two boys curse if they did it in the garage. The trouble with these strategies is that you can still hear the child in the bathroom yelling “POOPY." As children grow up, they won’t always have a  garage handy they can pull out and swear into. Plus, this strategy doesn't really help children understand swear words in their social-emotional effects on others.

Here are some strategies you can use instead:

  • Teaching children that some language can hurt or provoke others. 
  • There is a time and place for coarse language — but it’s probably not at school, grandma’s house or the grocery store.  
  • Children do need to know that they can express their emotions by naming it. Swear words just might not always be the right words.
  • Children are watching you, so teach some coping techniques for stress. Taking a deep breath or counting to ten are my go-to practices.

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When children reflect the media they see

Exposure to television, video games, or other screen-type activities could be one of the ways children are exposed to undesirable language. Children may realize that certain curse words get them attention when they communicate anger or frustration. 

It can be triggering for people when children say things like, “You are dead,” or “I am going to shoot you,” or talk about killing. Children don't always know what these words mean. In these instances, it’s best to tell children what these words mean, and why people may find them upsetting. An example of this conversation could be. “Johnny, you are not in trouble, I am just wondering do you know what 'dead’ means?”  In my experience, a child will reply that they don’t know what it means. This is a teaching opportunity. How in-depth you want to go in explaining what ‘dead’ means is up to you.  

Children who are exposed to the local evening news, or national and world news, may see video footage that is violent or scary. Think about a child's brain — do they know this already happened? Do they think it is happening over and over every time they see it? When young children watch a movie, they don't necessarily know what is real and pretend

It’s natural that children will process these influences through play. Is this a cause for concern? Maybe. You should consider the following factors:

  • Are other children getting hurt?
  • Are they using hurtful language? 
  • Is the child fixated on that theme of play?  

The first thing an educator can do is ask the child if they saw a movie or TV show that they learned from. It’s important to connect with parents on this issue, to make sure they know how powerful these influences can be.

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Response strategies when children are using swear words

So how do we bring all this into your daily practice? Well, here are some ideas on how you might respond to children’s swearing in the moment.

  • Try not to overreact. Acknowledge big feelings of anger and frustration if a child reacts with a curse word used in the proper context. The reaction could be, "You're feeling angry because your Lego building broke? Darn it. That would make me angry too.” 
  • Try your best not to laugh. I have been guilty of this. I try to turn my back if I laugh. If after a few times ignoring is not working, calmly talk to your child about alternative words to say. 
  • Getting angry or triggered draws negative attention. A child seeking connection and knowing this gets a reaction, regardless of it's positive or negative, will continue the behavior.  
  • Explain why swearing might be offensive to people. When children learn how that language can make other people feel, it gives them a ‘why’ not to do it — so it’s not just an arbitrary rule.
  • Create alternatives. When a child is entering a new grade, a new school, or a new developmental milestone, chances are they will use lingo and expressions they have heard from peers. Perhaps a simple statement like, “Some people might feel like that word is not kind or rude" can help put things in perspective.
  • Consider different household rules. When a child visits a friend, the family may not share the same values, or consider something a "bad" word when you say a curse word and realize that your child is looking right at you. You can admit that you should pick another way to express your frustration. 

The bottom line is that children will still curse from time to time.  It happens, and every situation is different.  

I leave you with this little ditty from my son's childhood.

 In our house, the words stupid and shut-up were considered taboo words.  My son ran into the house from kindergarten one day to report some information, “Mommy, Johnny said the 'sh' word at school today." I looked at him with my eyes wide and said: “oh my gosh, he said ‘shit’?”  He looked at me puzzled and replied: “no, he said ‘SHUT-UP’!” 

The big ideas

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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