Behaviour & Emotions

Kids, colourful language and goats

Kids swearing article

I distinctly remember the moment our eldest, then aged four, exclaimed two slightly mispronounced words that clearly started with F and H. They weren’t perfectly articulated, but they were unmistakable.

“Umm, we don’t say that in our family.”

– “Yes, you’ve said it.”

“Umm, I have?"

– “Yes. You said it once when we were all crying.”

Context: my husband and I are not big swearers. There’s no moral high-ground here, we just don’t really swear. Some further context: we had three baby girls in four years. For a season I was home all day, every day with a baby, a toddler and a preschooler. From time to time, there was some crying. And perhaps some swearing… apparently… maybe.

We’re not here to tell you how to talk in your own home. Every family will have their own gauge on levels of appropriateness. But kids just say the darnedest things sometimes, don’t they? If yours have surprised you with a fresh phrase or two lately, you may be keen for some tips on how to tackle it.

It's just a goat

There are lots of reasons kids say what they say. Yes, they’re inclined to mimic words they hear the grown-ups use. And yes, school-aged kids are prone to copy what they hear in the playground. While we can’t always control what our kids hear out there in the big wide world, we can be careful of what they hear inside the home. It’s really, really hard to make this point without sounding judgey. (Re-read the intro at this point if it helps.) It’s impossible to be perfect but if we don’t want our kids to swear, best we don’t either. There, I’ve said it.

When it comes to swearing, colourful language typically carries some shock value. It can also be pretty funny (well, not to everyone) when little kids use big language. And if internet viewing stats tell us anything, it’s hugely entertaining.

Swearing is a pretty effective way for kids to get some attention and our reactions can reinforce this message. The best thing to do when faced with a language bomb is to stay calm – poker-faced if you can – and gently remind your child that we don’t use that language in this family. “In our family we…” is a helpful tool for establishing and reinforcing the culture of your unique family. (I’ve found it to be really effective at our place. Well, aside from that moment I mentioned in the intro…) It’s not judgemental, as it helps kids understand that families are all different. What’s okay for one family, might not be within the acceptable boundaries of another. And that’s acceptable and okay.

How surprising/intriguing/mysterious/remarkable

I’m a bit of a word nerd. One problem with swearing is that we form a habit, using cuss words to describe pretty much everything, and then forget to use all the other wonderful adjectives available to us. When faced with a word you’d rather not hear from your young person, perhaps you could encourage them to think of another describing word.

“A goat in the garden? How unforeseen!”

And if there are some big feelings beneath those big words, this is a great moment to talk about emotions and put names to them.

“I wonder if you’re feeling scared right now… or worried?”

“Actually, you’re probably rather perplexed. Goats don’t usually wander freely around the suburbs.”

They don’t need to make a big deal about it; they could simply use different language and swim against the current a bit.

He said, she said

For school-aged kids, peer pressure can be huge. Just the other day our youngest came home from school and commented that a lot of the kids in the class were swearing and she didn’t know how to fit in if she didn’t. This is tough, because the perceived need to fit in is huge for kids. But it’s not what friendship should be about. We took this as an opportunity to remind our kids that they don’t have to swear to have friends and be liked. They can actually help other kids by being the difference. They don’t need to make a big deal about it; they could simply use different language and swim against the current a bit.

As I said, every family is different and parents can decide for themselves what language they are comfortable with in their own home. For some families, swearing is one of those moments where we ‘do sweat the small stuff’, simply because it is a chance to establish a standard and hold to it. Kids are smart – they can soon figure out our expectations; what we want to hear from them, and what we’d rather not. Words have power. There’s a chance here to harness that power for good. Goats and all.

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam

Ellie Gwilliam is a passionate communicator, especially on topics relating to families. After 20 years in Auckland working mainly in publishing, Ellie now lives in Northland, with her husband and their three daughters, where she works from home as content editor for Parenting Place. Ellie writes with hope and humour, inspired by the goal of encouraging parents everywhere in the vital work they are doing raising our precious tamariki.

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