How to deal with an older sibling handing down a foul mouth to his sister.

Q: I have a 10-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter. My 3-year-old has started repeating some of the phrases she hears her brother saying (like "butthead" or "shut up"). How can I help her -- and her older brother -- understand why some words aren't okay to say?

A: This reminds me of when I was driving with my 3-year-old in one of the notorious rush hour backups in Washington, D.C. Suddenly, I hear from the backseat: "This damn traffic!" At that moment I realized that it's not just older siblings who slip up with their language -- it can be grown-ups too. (Guilty as charged!)

Talk it Out

First, help your older child learn to watch what he says around his little sister. Explain how she wants to be just like him and therefore imitates him, which is why it's important for him to show his sister acceptable ways to communicate. Then sit down with your children and develop some "family rules" about words. Let them know they can get angry or frustrated, but that it's not okay to use hurtful, inappropriate, or rude words. Then brainstorm with them words they can use to express themselves.

Reasonable Response

But what should you do when, despite all your good efforts, your daughter calls her cousin a poopy-face? Try to respond matter-of-factly. Children crave our attention -- be it negative or positive. And a big reaction makes them think, This worked great. I'll have to try it again! The less emotional you are, the less rewarding it is for your kids to use that word again. In a serious, calm voice, tell your daughter, "It's not okay to call people names. It hurts your cousin's feelings." Then help her express herself in more acceptable ways. For example, you can say, "I know you're angry with Judy for taking your doll. Let's ask her to return it." Remember that 3-year-olds are still learning about impulse control, so there are bound to be slipups. But with a calm and consistent response from you, they will eventually choose the more appropriate words.

Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at ZERO TO THREE, a nationwide nonprofit that promotes the healthy development of babies and toddlers (

Originally published in American Baby magazine, December 2006.

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