When a Child Uses "Bad" Words

Q.  My almost 5-year-old son has picked up the word “a..hole” and has been trying it out. I have been trying some advice about letting gutter talk take place at home so they don’t do it elsewhere, but I just cannot stand to hear that come out of his mouth. We don’t talk that way on a regular basis but my son is verbally precocious and remembers all he hears. Do you have any advice on how to delete this word from his vocabulary and how to react?

A  This is a common but challenging type of situation for parents who want to avoid both punishment and permissiveness. As Marshall Rosenberg wrote in his booklet “Raising Children Compassionately”, “There are other approaches besides permissiveness, that is, just letting people do whatever they want to do, or coercive tactics such as punishment. It has been my experience, whether we are communicating with children or adults, that when we are consciously not trying to get a person to do what we want, but trying to create a quality of mutual concern, a quality of mutual respect, a quality where both parties think that their needs matter and they are conscious that their needs and the other person’s well-being are interdependent – it is amazing how conflicts which otherwise seem unresolvable, are easily resolved.” (1)

One of the best ways to create a “quality of mutual concern and respect” is to remember the Golden Rule. How would we like a friend to help us stop doing something socially inappropriate or hurtful? Most likely, we would want them to explain to us, in a loving, calm and respectful way, the reasons for their concern (that others may misjudge our character, for example). We would like them to be patient with us, to have trust in our basic good nature, and to take our needs and ideas seriously. We would also want them to stay light if they feel the need to mention the behavior again.

Playfulness is a great way to stay light. Children love games, and can quickly get into the spirit of them. You might ask your son to create a game that will help get the words “out of his system”, such as using only “bad” words for two minutes. This sort of play can give the child some sense of personal power and autonomy, but in a safe, playful, and permitted way. For a young child, you could ask him to draw a picture of how he feels when he needs to use “bad” words, or use doll play by having the doll use those same words, and asking the child why he thinks the doll is doing that. This sort of projection of feelings can be very telling. It would also be helpful to create, together, a sign language signal that can be used discreetly in public as a reminder. The most important aspect of all of these approaches is a respectful attitude and an unshakable belief in the child’s basic goodness.

If bad language continues to be a problem, consider the possibility of unmet underlying needs. Is your son feeling powerless, angry, or vulnerable at this particular time? The most helpful approach a parent can take with any unwanted behavior is to look past that behavior to the unmet, underlying needs, to validate those needs, and to help him meet the needs in a more acceptable way. As Naomi Aldort wrote, “Every stage in a child’s life is there for a purpose. If we can respect and respond to her needs fully during each stage of her life, she can be done with that stage and move on.”

Many parents describe methods of parental guidance according to the degree that they are “permissive” or “punitive”, when in reality it is possible – and preferable – to take a third approach: recognize that a child is a human being who deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, in accordance with the Golden Rule. This is not “permissive”, it is humane and fair. It is also the most effective means for gaining cooperation and good will. With this approach, it can be possible, and even effortless and joyful, to provide responsible direction for a child in a non-hurtful and effective way.

1 Rosenberg, Marshall. Raising Children Compassionately. Booklet available from The Natural Child Project.

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