"Mommy, I learned a really bad word today: the F-word," my kindergartner declared proudly. We'd actually been having conversations about the types of language that were not okay—using potty language in public, saying hurtful things, name-calling—since he'd been in preschool. I waited for him to tell me that the F-word was "fartface" or "fatso." Nope.
It's shocking to hear the real F-word come out of your 5-year-old's mouth. I almost swerved off the road when my son joyfully shouted his new word from the backseat of the car. But experts say that this is the age when children typically become aware of profane language. They are hearing and learning up to nine new words a day, in the classroom and from TV or strangers in line at the grocery store, and unfortunately, swear words are included. Children discover that these words cause lots of emotion—even if they don't actually know what they mean—so they try them out to see what happens. "When kids realize that certain words have power because they get such a response, these words become very attractive," says James Walsh, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of school psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. If your kid comes home with some exciting new vocabulary words, follow this plan:
Your child is curious. If he asks what a particular word means because he's never heard it before, calmly give him an answer he can understand and don't overreact. It may be tempting to yell, or even laugh, when you hear words like this uttered by your innocent child, but if you do, you'll accidentally reinforce the idea that a swear word is an alluring thing to say, explains Dr. Walsh. You might tell him, "That is a word some people use, but it isn't a nice word and it's not appropriate for a child" or "We don't use that word in our family." This type of low-key response won't be rewarding to a kid who's looking for a big reaction, says Dr. Walsh.
When your child wants to know why some words are not allowed, it gives you a chance to talk about how our language affects the people around us. "Think about what you want to say in advance," suggests Timothy Jay, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, in North Adams. "This issue is really a question of how we treat other people and how we want them to respond to us." For example, you might say, "There are some words that really upset people we love. We don't want to hurt anyone, so we don't want to use those words."
Kids this age use profanity for exactly the same reasons adults often use it—to make people pay attention. They might curse because they are angry or because it's exciting. If your child swears at home or at school after you've explained that those words are not allowed, ask yourself why this behavior is happening, suggests Emily Lowell, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Developmental Pediatric Clinic at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, in Columbia. "You don't do something more than once if it doesn't work for you," she explains. Your child is behaving this way because it's filling some sort of need. Once you figure out what it is, you can help your child fill that need in a better way.
For example, if you think she was saying bad words in order to get your attention, look for opportunities to praise her at times when she is behaving and using appropriate language. Was she trying to be funny? Then be sure to laugh at her silly but appropriate jokes in the future. When your child curses because of frustration, explain that swearing is not an acceptable way to express strong emotions. Teaching her to simply name her emotion by saying "I'm mad!" or "I'm upset!" can be powerful, says Dr. Lowell. Pairing these statements with a physical release such as running or stomping her foot (if that's okay in your family) can make her feel better.
Your child may come home using an offensive word to name a body part, but don't be alarmed. "Five- and 6-year-olds are fascinated by their body and the differences between boys and girls," explains Dr. Jay. Your kid is learning about those physical differences and wants to talk about them, so teach him the word you would like him to use instead. Since many taboo words are actually sexual in nature, it's important not to overreact when your child tries one out. Ask him where he heard the word and if he knows what it means, Dr. Jay suggests. You want to make sure that the pathways of communication about sexuality remain open so that he'll come to you as he gets older with any questions he has or about things he's heard in school, explains Dr. Jay. If you respond angrily or shame him, you'll just be teaching him that he can't talk to you about his body and sexuality.
While a 5-year-old probably has a good handle on what poopyhead refers to, he may have no idea what some of the more "advanced" profanity means if he doesn't understand the social context behind the word. That's why Dr. Jay advises keeping your ears open for how he is using these words (is he name-calling or asking his friends what they mean?). Also look out for what he calls "the real taboo words" this age group uses—words they know to be hurtful, like scaredy-cat, stupid, and crybaby—and have a conversation about why these words are not appropriate either.