What Do I Do the First Time My Child Uses a Bad Word I Never Say?

Parents.com's 'Ask Your Mom' advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., helps you navigate what to do when your child explores her language in the most unscripted way.

parent putting hand over child's mouth
Photo: Illustration by Emma Darvick

Perplexed Mom

The other day, my 3-year-old used the word “boobies” to describe my breasts. I know we never use that word in our home so she must have picked it up somewhere else. What do I do the first time my child uses a word I never say?

—Perplexed Mom

Dear Perplexed,

Parenting young children can be full of those record-screech moments—"say what??" As entertaining as those burgeoning vocabularies can be, it's also a reminder that we have an important role to play in helping our little talkers understand the ins and outs of language.

To be honest, our first reaction may not be the best. Maybe you burst out laughing when your 3-year-old repeated a curse word you swear you never said in front of him. Now he repeats it over and over and over to get that same fantastic reaction. Or I know I've had the experience of coming down fast and hard on a word I don't want my children using, only to realize I just gave them a shiny, new button to push during power struggles. "Don't say that word" turns into a constant stream of hearing that very same word, the 3-year-old reveling in her new limit-testing ammunition.

The simplest first step in the case of your 3-year-old is to ask: "where did you hear that?"

However, simply ignoring new words we would rather they not use isn't taking advantage of the teaching part we signed up for as parents. Trust me, I've tried it. When my son discovered the glee of "potty words," we decided not to make a big deal of it or pay any attention to the whole bathroom-related encyclopedia coming from his mouth throughout the day. It's been at least three years, and his favorite nickname to throw around is "buttcheek slapper" so clearly we've made no progress.

What Parents Should Do

So, where is that happy medium between over-reacting to a new word and ignoring it, possibly at our own peril? The simplest first step in the case of your 3-year-old is to ask: "where did you hear that?" Obviously, 3-year-olds may not be the most reliable reporters, but it's a good start. I have learned that children they play with who have older siblings are often likely sources.

Monitor what they watch when possible.

In this day and age of the nonstop feed of YouTube videos, though, it's probably good to keep your mom or dad finger on the pulse of what they may be coming across online while using your tablets. I remember my own son occasionally being very helpfully occupied by what I thought was age-appropriate superhero games, but as I looked more closely I saw a very violent portrayal of Spiderman, which I promptly banned. Even some of those seemingly G-rated, innocent collections of funny videos may have content that you don't want your young child repeating or imitating, and that's exactly their super talent at these ages.

Teach words to use instead.

Even if you and your daughter can't locate the source of "boobies" (or she won't snitch), it is also a teaching moment for using language in a way that works for your family. Since this is not a word you use, you can explain that you say "breasts" for those body parts, for example. (By the way, we do know there is great value in using accurate words for all of our body parts.)

Discuss appropriate v. inappropriate language.

In our family, we deem what is considered "appropriate" and "inappropriate" language, and our kids have adopted those labels for their own understanding of how to categorize words. This is especially helpful when they hear a range of colorful, new words from their peers, expanding each year of grade school. We can't prevent them from seeing and hearing words we would never say, but we can prepare them to come to us for guidance.

Just the other day, my own 10-year-old confessed she sometimes says "swear words" in her head, but would never say them out loud. It helps me cherish these days with the youngest when "the 's' word" stands for "stupid," and I have to conceal my smile when "buttcheek slapper" is his biggest insult.

If you can react to your 3-year-old now in a very matter-of-fact way, with an explanation for why you may not want her using the word, she will see you as a resource for how to navigate the world of language with each passing year. So, when she's 10 and comes home with an even more stunning vocabulary, she can ask you about it without fearing she will get in trouble or be embarrassed.

Because let's face it, "boobies" is just the beginning of the word-policing parenting journey!

Submit your parenting questions to 'Ask Your Mom' columnist Emily here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns.

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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