Cleaning up bad language requires action and creativity.
By Jenifer Whitten Woodring
Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but words can never hurt me. Unless they
come from the mouths of babes—my
babes, that is. I'll never forget when my son,
Patrick, then a darling two-year-old with
angelic curls and adorable blue eyes, began
saying, "Damn it, Mommy!" with both feeling
and enunciation. How could I teach a toddler
who was just learning to talk that some
words are better left unsaid?
Preschoolers have an uncanny ability to pick up words—all
words—that they hear. In my case, I must admit, Patrick
probably heard it from his parents. And what kids pick up on
TV, on the playground, in the store, or at child care is bound to
stick. Eventually, your angel is going to utter something
downright demonic, no matter how much you try to shield him.
Your little one's first cussing episode may seem funny at first,
but don't laugh. "Swearing can get them into big trouble when
they go to school. It's better to teach them now so they don't
have to suffer the consequences later," advises Kathy Burklow,
a psychologist at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical
Curbing a Cusser
While there are many ways parents can help children avoid bad
language, there is no substitute for avoiding it yourself. James
O'Connor, the author of Cuss Control (Three Rivers Press),
suggests trying alternative exclamations like shoot, blast it,
nuts, phooey, for crying out loud, and dagnabit. Silly
terms—malarkey, balderdash, hogwash—will get your kids to
laugh, making them more likely to want to imitate them.
Most children under three won't comprehend that certain words
are unacceptable. Often, ignoring the offense may be the best
defense when dealing with the very young. But after their third
birthday, they're more likely to understand that some words are
naughty. So take action. "Get down on your knees, look your
child directly in the eye, and tell him, 'That's a word that we
don't use in our family,'" recommends Linda Metcalf, the author
of Parenting Toward Solutions (Prentice Hall). "Make the
words—not the child—the culprit to give him a chance to move
away from the behavior."
If your child persists in using such language, show him you
mean business with disciplinary action. For a four-year-old,
that may mean calling a short time-out or taking away a
favorite toy. Kids a little older may benefit from time spent in
Fortunately, Patrick's transgression turned out to be an easy
fix: We convinced him to substitute the more acceptable "darn
it." It didn't take long for him to start correcting adults who
failed to use this alternative.
Writer Jenifer Whitten Woodring has two children and lives in Pennsylvania.
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