You sit on the floor with your toddler as she stacks blocks up to her shoulder, smiling all the while at her sweet giggles when suddenly a block drops -- and a profanity with it. It is a shock -- maybe even a little bit funny or horrifying -- the first time an innocent two-year-old curses. It definitely leaves parents wondering about the appropriate response. Rest assured, parents: The American Academy of Pediatrics says cursing is actually developmentally appropriate. But that doesn’t mean it should persist.
It may be difficult to tell your child to stop cursing if she heard you utter the same word last week in a fit of frustration. Parents need to tune in to their own language habits and make a conscious effort to stop using profanities -- or at least save them for when little ears are asleep for the night. Think about any care providers or teachers in your child’s life -- ask them to remain vigilant of their language. Screen any media you expose your child to beforehand -- this includes television, movies, games, and books.
Discuss the Word
Pediatric psychologist Dr. Laura Markham recommends asking your child what the word means. If she doesn’t know, tell her. Be sure to let her know when people say those kinds of words, what kind of feelings they evoke in others. Focus on alternative solutions -- perhaps when your child is mad or frustrated she could hit a pillow, not curse. Or you could make up a silly code word together to use instead of the profanity.
Make a game out of it. Dr. Markham suggests a “special time” when the child can use the word as much as he wants. Parents simply respond with silliness. Dr. Markham reasons that cursing is a child’s way to explore power and shock, and a game gives her safe boundaries in which to do so. She may eventually lose interest in the behavior.
Conventional wisdom would have parents simply ignore the behavior, but, as Dr. Markham points out, that does not address the child’s need to be recognized as a powerful little human. If the behavior is to be squelched, the need underneath it needs to be acknowledged and mirrored back to the child. Parents might also be tempted to label certain words as bad or unsavory, but doing so only increases their mystery. Focus instead on offering positive, healthy ways for a child to explore her own power.