Expert Q&A: Toddler Swearing

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By Kerby T. Alvy, Ph.D., With Nicole Gregory

Question: My 4-year-old son Ethan is a talker. He likes to repeat bad words and I’m not sure how to stop him. I’ve tried not to use bad language around him, but he picks up words like “sh—” from adults he hears. He loves to say the word “stupid,” especially after he hears it on TV—and it’s used in a lot of kids’ TV shows! He knows we don’t allow that word in our house, but he keeps repeating it as loudly as he can. How do I stop him from doing this? —Emily Baker, Whittier, Calif.

Expert advice:
At this age, kids are great modelers. Whatever you say, you’ll get it back, so it’s good to watch very carefully how you speak! You need a strategic approach to get your son to stop repeating words you don’t want him to use, and one way is to ignore him when he says inappropriate words, particularly the first time he uses one.

At this age, children don’t know that certain words have negative meaning in the family or community until you inadvertently promote them by drawing attention to them. So when Ethan says an inappropriate word, try ignoring him—keep a neutral expression on your face, don’t make eye contact, move a few feet away and simply ignore the verbalization. It’s not easy! It can be especially difficult when a young child uses a bad word in public, where you feel like you’re on stage.

Some people will give you a look as if to say Why aren’t you stopping that kid? Develop a tough skin. The strategy of ignoring can be hardest to use in public, but yelling at a child in that situation will only compound the problem. If you can put up with the social ostracism in the market, ignoring your child is more effective.

Don’t attempt to explain to him why certain words are inappropriate at the moment when you want him to stop. Wait until another time of day, and then explain to him that in your family you respect each other, and part of that respect is to not use certain words. Even if he hears these words on TV, these are not words you use in your home.

If you try to stop Ethan just as he’s saying “stupid,” you run the risk of reinforcing the behavior because you’re giving him a lot of attention for it. After that, if your son knowingly repeats an inappropriate word, there has to be a consequence, such as not being able to play with his favorite truck for 10 minutes.

Emily’s feedback:
This is good. We’d never thought of giving him a consequence when he uses a bad word. The other night we were all watching a movie, and when one of the characters said “stupid,” Ethan started repeating it. I told him that if he said it again, I would take his train away, so he stopped immediately. Later on in the show, the word was mentioned again and Ethan just turned and gave me a big look—but didn’t say anything.

He seems to have learned not to use it! We finally got him to stop saying “sh—” a different way. At first my husband and I didn’t know how to stop him. Then we got the idea to tell him, “You’re saying that word wrong, Ethan, it’s really ‘shoot.’” He believed us! Anyway, he hasn’t said “stupid” again since I told him there would be a consequence if he did.

Kerby T. Alvy, Ph.D., is a child psychologist and founder of the Center for the Improvement of Child Caring ( in Studio City, Calif., and the author of The Positive Parent: Raising Healthy, Happy and Successful Children, Birth Through Adolescence (Teachers College Press, 2008). Nicole Gregory is a writer and editor who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and 11-year-old son.

“My 4-year-old likes to repeat bad words and I’m not sure how to stop him.”

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