How to Stop a Kid from Cursing

What to do when your child leaves you thinking, "What the F did you just say?"

boy covering his mouth

It was a normal evening at home: Kate* was preparing dinner, while her six-year-old daughter and nine-year-old son bickered at the table. Suddenly, her son called out, "Mom! Sarah said the b-word! She just called me the b-word!"

Although Kate says she is used to being surprised by her children, she was still shocked to hear that word came from her six-year-old's mouth.

"I stopped and immediately asked her, Do you know what that means?' She didn't, so I told her that it's even worse than stupid' which is a bad word in our house, she really shouldn't say that to people, and that I didn't want to hear her say it again."

Sarah burst into tears and ran to her room.

"I still feel bad that she cried over it...but there's something to be said about the relationship between regret and learning," says Kate.

While Kate can now laugh about the incident, it still begs the question: has cursing become so common that even our Kindergarteners are picking it up?

You would have to be sleeping pretty soundly to have missed the recent publication of the adult children's book, Go the F**k to Sleep, by Adam Mansbach and Ricardo Cortes. In this whimsically-illustrated book, an array of inappropriate words appears alongside terms of endearment like "darling," "dear," and "my love." 

The faux-children's bedtime story reached a peak of fame when the actor Samuel L. Jackson agreed to record his reading of it -- in an increasingly despairing tone -- for Audible, Inc. Before beginning his reading, Jackson admits that he said "go the f--k to sleep" to his young daughter so much that she began to parrot this bedtime phrase back to him.

Really? He was okay saying this in front of his daughter? While admittedly, the F-word can be a useful and effective adjective at times, are more parents using it at the kids' table?

We hope not. But this book forces us parents to face the fact that inappropriate language is getting more, um, appropriate. As formerly offensive words sneak into conversations and PG-13 movies, they start to seem, well, less offensive. So where do parents draw the line? Even if you are a saint, your child is bound to hear curse words from his peers or in a YouTube video.

Care.com's Parenting Expert Dr. Robi Ludwig feels that parents should work hard to train themselves to stop cursing around their kids. "Swearing basically is a very impulsive way to talk. How you talk effects how people respond to you," she says further explaining that a person who swears sends a message that he is not in control of their impulses.

At its best, swearing is an ineloquent way to express emotions. At its worst, it actually stunts one's ability to describe his or her emotional experiences.

So whether a child hears these bombs from you, at school or on TV, it's important to stop the language before it continues.

Here's what to do if your child swears:

  1. Don't overreact. No matter what age your child is, address it immediately and calmly. Kids age 6 and under, tend to think in black-and-white terms. Start simple: say "No swearing ever." Once they realize they said a bad' word, they will most likely feel shame and remorse. For older kids, who can think more abstractly, you should explain why swearing is not okay. Just remember, at some point, every kid will curse. Your goal is to make sure to help kids express their feelings, to talk and present themselves in the best way -- as well as to set boundaries.
  2. Nip it in the bud. Some parents believe that calling attention to a child's inappropriate words will only encourage the behavior, so they choose to ignore these transgressions. But Dr. Ludwig encourages parents to respond promptly to such behavior, observing that "We can't assume kids know how to act unless we teach them. If you talk to them, they will get the message that there's a better way to respond." Ask your child first whether he or she understands the word. If the answer is "no," explain that the word is offensive, that it effects how others receive you, and that it is not acceptable. If your child does understand the word, give him a similar speech, but know that this might need to become part of a larger conversation.
  3. Don't be tempted by YouTube fame. Sure, a video of your cursing toddler might launch your child into his fifteen minutes at a young age, but curb the desire to pull out your videophone the next time he swears. Doing so only positively reinforces the behavior and sends a double message -- I don't want you to swear, but swearing will make my friends laugh hysterically, so could you do it one more time and look into the camera?
  4. Be honest. When you reprimand your child, he or she might retort, "But I heard you/Daddy say it." Resist the urge to deny or justify your own swearing. Instead, admit that you also struggle to control what you say. By doing so you won't create a double standard -- and you'll get the added bonus of making your child feel like he is facing an adult problem.
  5. Find new words. Sit down with your child and brainstorm new, non-offensive words or phrases to say when she feels frustrated, upset, or angry. More often than not, children say these words when name-calling. Use this incident to discuss your child's feelings toward an acquaintance or sibling. Encourage her to use other, different words to describe how the person makes her feel. This can expand her vocabulary and help turn a bad moment into a bonding one.
  6. Create consequences. If none of the above work, or if your child has already made a habit of swearing, you need stronger measures to show him that this behavior is not appropriate. Tell him that every time he swears at home, you will take fifty cents from his allowance or assign him new household chore.

What Bad Words You Say, Mama

And now, Mom and Dad, this one is for you.

  1. Bring on the Swear Jar. While putting a dollar in a mason jar each time you swear is the most famous technique to clean a dirty mouth, it can draw attention to swearing in the home, especially for older kids. So if swearing is a problem for just one member of the family, you may want to try another method. But if the whole family needs to work on their language, the jar can be a fun and an effective way to eliminate cursing. Put the money towards a family activity, like an evening at the movies.
  2. Correct guests, even Grandma! Maybe you don't swear, but what if a frequent guest, like your own mother, does? Let the guest know that, while you may be comfortable hearing these words in other settings, that you do not want them in the home. If the guest persists in swearing in your home, or if she is a less regular guest, don't call attention to it in front of your child. Try to separate her from the party discreetly -- ask for help in the kitchen or offer to show them the new print hanging in your bedroom -- and repeat your request. If your children are being watched by a babysitter, talk to her about appropriate language in your household as well.
  3. Beware of TV and movies: Think Johnny's coloring -- and too young to understand what's on the small screen? Think again. Swear words often get laughs and kids' ears perk up just in time to catch them.
  4. Find new words. Can't help dropping the S-word every time your favorite team loses? The F-word when you stub your toe? Try finding new, less offensive -- maybe even funny and incongruous words, like "mango" -- to use in these situations. Hey, it may sound strange, but at least it's not rude.

As Dr. Ludwig notes, "Swearing is something that is definitely going to happen. Parents should know this is something to expect and that it's not a reflection of being a bad parent." 

But if you bought the Mansbach book, keep it on a high-shelf.

>            Get more parenting advice here



*Names have been changed.

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Comments (23)
RebeccatheSailor
I admit, I am here because I thought my son's first words would be F**k...but it wasn't...it was his 2000th. At 3 years old he can chime out F**K You exactly as it should be spoken. Not that I am proud, but I am amazed he has picked it up...and although I may use F**k...I do not say F**K you to anyone at anytime so he put that together on his own. It has become a regular in our house and very frustrating as well. I know I am the reason he swears so I am watching my mouth as well. I also admit I laughed out loud to what Samuel L. Jackson said about bedtime. I have said it myself. It is my only vice, as I do not drink or smoke...I swear. On to a cleaner mouth. Can Orbit gum help with that?
Posted: August 26, 2013 at 1:55 PM
Troubbled Sister
Good advice. Now how do i help a dirty-mouthed little brother?
Posted: May 21, 2013 at 11:58 PM
Lilly Ann
Very good information, I am a babysitter, i'm in high school, and openly lesbian. i watch two young boys around the age of ten. The boys are constantly cussing at each other and me, some things they say they have no clue what it means and i have explained several insults which they continued to use. the insults are more frequent when they have friends over. Just the other day the oldest boy called my girl friend "an ugly fag" at that point i had to bring it to their dad. what should i do to stop the language while i'm watching them?
Posted: June 29, 2012 at 4:15 PM
Lizia
Very good info! Thanks
Posted: May 24, 2012 at 9:15 AM
Charlene S.
Thanks for the helpful tips! We have never allowed cursing in our home and also don't allow OMG. This is cursing God, yelling at God, is offensive to Him and therefore, offensive to those who love Him. This is good practice for everyone who teaches tolerance; to be aware of how others may feel about the language you use.

Being in my 50's I have seen that the world has definitely become more oblivious to the use of bad language in many forms, perhaps largely due to Hollywood/media. When I was growing up, we (meaning all kids) were not allowed to use the word "suck" as a curse word, such as "You suck" because it is a sexual act (just like f...y..). This may be news to a lot of you, but that just shows how it has, indeed, become acceptable. I first noticed the total acceptance of the word/phrase when I watched "The Little Rascals" movie (not The Little Rascals I grew up with!) and the phrase was used. I was angry that what I was teaching my kids was wrong was now common place. Saying OMG was also prohibited and not common among children and now is written into the scripts for movies and t.v. and totally accepted by most parents. Yes, offensive language is more accepted these days.
Posted: January 24, 2012 at 11:05 AM
Photo of Debra P.
Debra P.
I loved this article and i agree with Ted very good advice i also agree with jennifer about the back fire of the cussing jar i believe even if you plan to use the money on something dont let anyone know that is what you will use the money for as i can see where they would like that so thanks to all of your advice as i am really going to work on mine as i slip up alot especially when i miss church for awhile. church helps you to check yourself and so does my wonderful mother in law as she is a prime example of a wonderful christian God bless you all
Posted: January 19, 2012 at 7:15 AM
Photo of Michelle W.
Michelle W.
Love it we have used the swear jar in our home for potty mouth family members and occasional slip ups
Posted: September 26, 2011 at 12:02 PM
Photo of Ted C.
Ted C.
I disagree with her statement that "the F-word can be a useful and effective adjective at times". It is never useful or effective. If you don't want your children to swear, then don't swear yourself, whether they are around or not. Life's a lot easier when you are consistent and don't have to change the way you speak depending on the audience.
Posted: August 12, 2011 at 5:01 PM
Alexander Wood
Thanks for the great advice. I love the idea of instituting a swear jar!
Posted: August 03, 2011 at 10:08 AM
Edwardo C.
good
Posted: August 02, 2011 at 5:14 PM
Annette V.
I find everything to be very helpful. These are some nice and effective tips.
Posted: July 26, 2011 at 8:31 PM
Jennifer P.
I understand about the whole swear jar being an effective way to curb swearing if used appropiately. I do not agree with this statement from the article, "But if the whole family needs to work on their language, the jar can be a fun and an effective way to eliminate cursing. Put the money towards a family activity, like an evening at the movies." If children know that their swearing causes money to be placed in the jar and saved up for fun family activities, then they will actually see it as a good thing to keep doing because essentially, they are being rewarded for swearing by being able to go do something fun with the family, like seeing a movie. You can probably see why this method would backfire on any parents who tried to enforce it. Other than that, the article does contain a lot of good info.
Posted: July 20, 2011 at 9:54 PM
Michelle S.
Wonderful advice i have a 7 year old who thinks everything his teenage siblings do is absolutely hilarious and they love mimicking youtube. There are alot of things i will do different now.
Thanks.
Posted: July 17, 2011 at 11:09 AM
Photo of Alice Z.
Alice Z.
I love the bad words jar. My kids loved it to tell they found they were doing more chores just so they could say bad words. We used the money from the bad words jar to go to CA. to see My mom who never said a bad word as long as I have been around her. She gave us $300.00 and said when the kids don't say a bad word all day give them a Dime. I ran out of money real quit. I had to think of another thing I wanted them to stop doing so we could go to see my mom again. My kids changed the bad words jar to the trip jar and put Half of the money they get from there Grandma and form doing chorse so they could go see her again. They said Thank You mom for not letting us say bad words. They gave me the trip to see my mom for my Birthday. we got to sit in the front of the plane. If you have never had you kids do something that nice for you you might want to try the bad words jar for your self. Thank You
Posted: July 16, 2011 at 3:17 AM
Photo of Gina M.
Gina M.
I stopped swearing when I was 18. I gave it up for lent in 1994 and haven't said a swear word worse than Dammit since. Now, I have heard curse words out of my 4 & 5 year olds mouth, but its because of their father. I tell him that he needs to clean his mouth out with soap, but he doesn't like me and tells me to go to hell. Any suggestions?
Posted: July 14, 2011 at 1:03 PM
Photo of Deann S.
Deann S.
I stopped swearing when my daughter was learning to talk. I mindlessly say "Damn it" when something doesn't go rite. My daughter caught it and that was the end of that. I stopped cursing all together and my brother "the sailor" has ADHD and cannot help it. I explained people judge you by the words you use and we didn't use those words. Now she is 13 and is allowed to express her frustrated thoughts on paper in her journal. We still don't use those words openly, but they do have a place. I'm still very proud of her vocabulary, because she uses proper words publicly. I took the power and the novelty out of the words by not making them strictly prohibited.
Posted: July 11, 2011 at 11:44 AM
Patricia H.
This is great information. Yes, swearing is becoming more socially acceptable, but there still remains a difference in settings. If kids choose to swear around their peers, that's one issue. However, in an educational, professional, or in many social settings, swearing is never appropriate. Kids can be told that there's "kid-speak" and "adult-speak," and swearing is never acceptable in any "adult-speak" setting.
Posted: July 11, 2011 at 10:44 AM
Julia D.
I stopped swearing when my daughter was an infant. I asked myself, "Do I want her to swear?" The answer was no. So I asked myself, "Can you expect her not to swear if you do?" The answer was also no. So I stopped. I could not expect her not to do something I had modeled.
Posted: July 10, 2011 at 1:23 PM
Suzanne K.
GREAT ADVICE
Posted: July 09, 2011 at 10:49 PM
Sureynot
"inappropriate language is getting more, um, appropriate. As formerly offensive words sneak into conversations and PG-13 movies, they start to seem, well, less offensive."

I think this is a class case of "Golden Age thinking." I am 31; I grew up watching movies in the 80's. Then, there were PG-13 movies that cursed all the time. All used the S-bomb. Some even used the F-Bomb. Some even had brief nudity (18 again). (I loved all this, by the way, as a young boy.) Even in harmless ol' E.T. Elliot calls his brother "P---s Breath" at one point.

Today, there almost are no PG-13 movies. Anything that contains questionable content is given an R. The PG movies are completely sanitized. (One recent exception to this is Super 8, which itself is a throwback to those early 80's Speilberg movies.)

Now of course there are venues for cursing that kids can be exposed to that I didn't have growing up, like the internet, and Satelite and Cable tv having hundreds of channels, instead of just a few dozen. But I feel this is a different issue. I don't feel that our culture as a whole is more accepting of cursing. It's just that there are now more oppurtunities for children to get there hands on material that is intended for adults, material that was never meant to be consumed by children. And this is a serious concern for parents of today, and I'm sure there are thousands of articles written giving advice on how to let your kids surf the internet safely, or which channels at which times are childr appropriate.
But to say that cursing is more accepted today than ever before? Not only do I disagree, I would actually argue the opposite. That more and more people are uptight about things like cursing. Hence, articles like the one printed directly above my comments.
Posted: July 08, 2011 at 12:34 PM
Photo of Gary H.
Gary H.
Great advice for parents and children alike.....way to go....new vocabulary can benefit everyone...:) :)
Posted: July 07, 2011 at 9:57 PM
Thomas Bruce
this is fantastic! Great writing.
Posted: July 07, 2011 at 9:48 PM
Photo of Isabelle A.
Isabelle A.
very good information
Posted: July 05, 2011 at 1:56 PM
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