The first time your toddler belts out their first “potty” word—that they no doubt learned from their older sibling—your first reaction might be laughter, which you immediately regret, then a firm discussion on how potty-talk words are not okay to use.

But nothing quite prepares you for the first time they drop a swear word—especially in front of Grandma! When toddlers swear, they are usually repeating something they have heard. They develop verbal skills through repetition; they are not trying to hurt or offend anyone, so not having a big reaction and teaching other words to use usually helps.

Once your children enter school, it becomes more challenging to censor the types of language they hear. But there are steps you can take to teach your children what words are acceptable to use and those that are not.

Say What?!

At some point your child might experiment with swearing. It may get them attention or a reaction from others, or it makes them feel “tough” or “cool.” Swear words often come out when they want to hurt someone, or when they are frustrated or angry. Encourage your child to name the emotion they are feeling, and say what they most want. Work through the problem and talk about the swearing when they are calm. Then, you can teach your child acceptable ways to express themselves when feelings are high.

When adults use swear words, the words are usually emphasized, which makes them more appealing. Your first line of defense is setting a good example at home, making sure you aren’t using language at home that you don’t want your own child to use. Remember this old saying: “Children don’t always do what you say, but they always do what you do.”

In addition, here are some other strategies to try:

  • Planned Ignoring: Use this strategy the first time your child uses a swear word at home. It’s possible that ignoring their chosen words will be enough to get them to stop using swear words. The key is to not overreact or laugh.
  • Plan Ahead: You and your partner should decide what words you consider offensive in your family, as well as words that would be unacceptable to use at school and in the community. Be prepared to go over this list of words with your child if their swearing increases.
  • Discuss The Problem: Pick a time when everyone is calm to talk to your child about swearing. “Nina, I don’t like it when you use swear words, including (insert your family’s decided offensive words here). From now on these words are not allowed.” List some reasons that swear words are not OK to use, such as “Swearing can get you in trouble at school, or at a friend’s house,” or “Words have power and can hurt people’s feelings.” Then, make a list of words they can use instead to express what they are feeling.
  • Keep Track Of The Swear Words: Grab a small jar and some small items of your choice (beans, or craft pom poms). Explain that for every swear word that the child uses, a “bean” will go in the jar. Once the jar is full, they will lose a privilege. Conversely, if they are able to keep the jar “bean-free” that can earn a reward at the end of the day, weekend or week, such as a special activity with mom or dad. You might consider having a jar for everyone, and agree on a family activity ahead of time if all of you can go the whole day, weekend or week using only acceptable language.
  • Encourage Positive Alternatives: Come up with some words to use in place of swear words. If your child swears when you tell them they can’t have ice cream after dinner, offer other words they can use when they feel frustrated like “phooey!
  • Establish The Sources: Did your child pick up their newfound vocabulary from school, an older sibling, a TV show, or even yourself? Depending on the source, you may need to limit exposure to that particular show or book, as well as be mindful of the language you use yourself.

Being a positive role model goes a long way in establishing appropriate words usage in your home and discouraging those words you never want to hear come out of your child’s mouth. With planning and consistent responses, you can address the issue right away, and your child can learn ways to express himself with language that is easier on the ears.


This article is brought to you by Parenting Now! Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (  Parenting Now! is passionate about happy, healthy families. For more information about Parenting Now! please visit their website ( or contact us at

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