Ask BBB: Parenting Advice from Betsy Brown Braun

QUESTION: My kindergartner has started saying curse words on a regular basis. We don’t tend to curse at home so I’m not sure where she’s learning this. Should we make a big deal out of it or just ignore it? 

BBB: When out-of-the-blue a young child drops an F bomb or uses the A word with the hole in it, it is not a particularly proud moment for any parent. And when he uses it in context, it is a real shocker. Parents wonder where the child could possibly have heard those words. The answer is, unfortunately, anywhere and everywhere.

Colorful language has become more common—overheard in everyday communications and in movies, television and videos—in many parts of society today. It’s not that it is okay; it’s just reality.

It remains, nonetheless, the parent’s job to teach a child about proper language usage, and hope that it sticks. It is part of his growing social and emotional intelligence as well as mannerly behavior.

Most commonly, children pick up curse words from older siblings, from unsuspecting family members (while driving!), and from peers on the playground—who may have brought them to school from their homes.

Usually the child is trying on cursing for size. He waits for your reaction and assesses the power the language has. For that reason, most professionals recommend totally, and I mean totally ignoring it. This too will pass.

There are people who believe in the old-fashioned “Swear Jar” into which family members put 50 cents or a dollar every time they curse. Of course, this isn’t likely to work well with the child who hasn’t mastered the value of money. Neither do punishments of other sorts (time-out, removal of privileges, etc.) as they draw attention to the act and give it power.

As young children, in particular, are constantly in search of power and ways to express it, the attention parents pay to the swearing can fuel the behavior.

Modeling is the primary way children learn. If a child hears even your occasional swear word accompanied by your profuse apology, he learns those words are loaded. He smells the power they have. Likewise, if you give a big response to their proper language and none at all to the improper, he learns a lesson.

Just know that swearing is the step that comes after toilet talk. It is, unfortunately, just another part of learning.

Betsy Brown Braun, M.A. is a Child Development and Behavior Specialist (infants to teens), a Parent Educator, and Multiple Birth Parenting Specialist. Betsy consults with parents privately, runs parenting groups, seminars and workshops for parents, teachers, and other professionals.  She is the award-winning author of the bestselling, “Just Tell Me What to Say” and “You’re Not the Boss of Me.” Betsy has been featured on the Today Show, The Early Show and Good Morning America and has been cited in Parents Magazine, Twins Magazine, Family Circle and many more.  Betsy and Ray Braun, Palisades residents for 38 years, are the parents of adult triplets and have five grandchildren, so far.