Cleaning up bad language requires action and creativity.

By Jenifer Whitten Woodring

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. Unless they come from the mouths of babes—my babes, that is. I’ll never forget when my son, Patrick, then a darling two-year-old with angelic curls and adorable blue eyes, began saying, “Damn it, Mommy!” with both feeling and enunciation. How could I teach a toddler who was just learning to talk that some words are better left unsaid?

Preschoolers have an uncanny ability to pick up words—all words—that they hear. In my case, I must admit, Patrick probably heard it from his parents. And what kids pick up on TV, on the playground, in the store, or at child care is bound to stick. Eventually, your angel is going to utter something downright demonic, no matter how much you try to shield him.

Your little one’s first cussing episode may seem funny at first, but don’t laugh. “Swearing can get them into big trouble when they go to school. It’s better to teach them now so they don’t have to suffer the consequences later,” advises Kathy Burklow, a psychologist at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

Curbing a Cusser

While there are many ways parents can help children avoid bad language, there is no substitute for avoiding it yourself. James O’Connor, the author of Cuss Control (Three Rivers Press), suggests trying alternative exclamations like shoot, blast it, nuts, phooey, for crying out loud, and dagnabit. Silly terms—malarkey, balderdash, hogwash—will get your kids to laugh, making them more likely to want to imitate them.

Most children under three won’t comprehend that certain words are unacceptable. Often, ignoring the offense may be the best defense when dealing with the very young. But after their third birthday, they’re more likely to understand that some words are naughty. So take action. “Get down on your knees, look your child directly in the eye, and tell him, ‘That’s a word that we don’t use in our family,'” recommends Linda Metcalf, the author of Parenting Toward Solutions (Prentice Hall). “Make the words—not the child—the culprit to give him a chance to move away from the behavior.”

If your child persists in using such language, show him you mean business with disciplinary action. For a four-year-old, that may mean calling a short time-out or taking away a favorite toy. Kids a little older may benefit from time spent in their rooms.

Fortunately, Patrick’s transgression turned out to be an easy fix: We convinced him to substitute the more acceptable “darn it.” It didn’t take long for him to start correcting adults who failed to use this alternative.

Writer Jenifer Whitten Woodring has two children and lives in Pennsylvania.

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