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Teach Your Child About the Use of Foul Language

Every child tests the boundaries of acceptable speech at one time or another while growing up. Most of us can remember experimenting with select words and being corrected and possibly punished for it.

Is today any different? No. Kids are still using words that shock and dismay us. The only difference may be that they are starting earlier and using a fuller assortment of “swear” words.

Children use foul language for a variety of reasons- when angry, to show off with peers, for shock value, when copying an older child or an adult, or because they do not know that the word or phrase is unacceptable. Whatever the reason, foul language needs to be dealt with in a thoughtful and consistent way.

Just as with any unacceptable behavior, it is best to have a plan that is both kind and effective. Never assume a motive for the use of a “cuss” word. Your child may not even know what the offending word means or implies! Take some time to figure out if your child is using the word with understanding, or because he or she has heard it on the playground or from some other source such as music, television or a movie.


Young children are acutely aware of the energy behind words and how they are used. Preschoolers may not yet be able to distinguish right use from wrong, but they are able to see and feel the response evoked by the use of certain words in their environment. If they hear grownups use foul language, they will likely repeat it when the occasion calls for it.

First and most importantly, monitor your own use of objectionable words. If you have a habit of swearing when you are surprised, hurt or angry, make a decision to drop those words from your vocabulary. If grandparents, aunts, uncles, or care providers are careless with their speech, ask them to please refrain from cursing around your little one. Most adults will comply.

Children are exposed to coarse language when the television, radio or videos are on, even as background noise. What we take for granted on popular TV shows and in popular music lyrics as being okay, is many times the source of bad language for our children.

If your child uses an objectionable word or phrase at this age, simply say, “Some people use that word, but we do not.” Then suggest a substitute word that speaks to the emotion attached to the cuss word, like “darn” or “Meanie” or “Wow!” At this age your calm and matter of fact response will serve the situation better than an emotionally-charged and dramatic one.

It is very hard to insulate your child completely from foul language. Having an age-appropriate strategy that both Mom and Dad agree on will be helpful.

Main points to address:

  • Monitor your own language. You hold the greatest influence over your little one.
  • Television, videos, movies and music are common sources of objectionable words.
  • Your child may not know exactly what he is saying. Simply state your objection and suggest a substitute phrase.

Grades K-3rd

Young school age children work and play alongside children who may be raised differently than they. Language is the major mode of cultural expression. What may be acceptable or expected in one family may be offensive in another. If your child comes home with some new words, don’t be surprised- but do be ready!

A first time use of a swear word provides an opportunity for gentle correction. Laying down the law at this point may backfire, causing defiant and persistent use of the word or phrase. Also- do not laugh if you can help it. This may confuse the issue and cause a repeat performance.

Until your child is eight or nine years old, they will not know for sure which words are clearly right or wrong. Your job is to provide the basis for their developing judgment. If a teacher reports the use of swear words, discuss the specific context the word was used in and help your child come up with an alternative to using unacceptable language. If the problem is persistent, a reasonable age-appropriate consequence, determined ahead of time, could be imposed.

Keep in mind that trying out “power” language is normal and pretty much universal. Your child will eventually drop the word or words if he or she does not hear it at home and reasonable consequences are consistently administered.

Main Points to address:

  • School provides a new context for language acquisition, including objectionable language.
  • Respond calmly but firmly. Resist any urge to laugh. Apply reasonable consequences for repeat offenses.
  • Children are not clear about right and wrong use of language until age eight or nine. It’s up to you to teach them.

Grades 4-6th

Older school age children are able to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable speech. Knowing this may cause you to anger or become discouraged with your child. Resist the urge to over-react. Instead, look into the reason or reasons behind the use of offensive language. Is she frustrated? Is he succumbing to peer pressure? Is anger an emotion he or she has difficulty expressing? Knowing the reason behind the swearing will likely give you the right approach to the problem.

Continue to make your boundaries clear while helping your child to problem-solve. If your child seems determined to retain certain words in his speech, you may want to compromise by limiting when and where he or she speaks the word. Specify places and occasions where foul language is absolutely not acceptable, such as in school and other public places and around younger siblings. If they will accept an alternate phrase or word to express their feelings, so much the better. Meanwhile, try to effectively deal with the underlying problem if indeed there is one.

Objectionable language should fade out around this time, but may emerge later in the teen years. If swearing seems to be part of a larger pattern of defiance, you may want to get professional help.

But for most children this age, your explanation that words have the power to hurt or heal, to lift up or tear down, and that foul language causes hurt and confusion will be enough. Telling them that a person is often judged by their manner of speech and the degree of respect it reflects or lacks may help them understand why this area of personal conduct is so important.

Controlling speech is an important form of self-control, and as with any area of personal growth and character development, it is a process, often involving trying out and modifying behavior.

Your child will likely grow up to be reasonable in speech and manner if they have had your good example to model after and your guidance to lean on.

Main points to address:

  • If older children continue to swear, this may be a sign that their heart is troubled in some way.
  • Specify places and situations where foul language is absolutely not to be used.
  • Controlling speech is an important part of character development. It is a process! Kids may try out swearing, later forsaking it.
  • Your example remains the single most influential factor.


Resources that can help you in your venture include:

Posted in Character.

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