Young kids love to experiment with words and have a tendency to imitate or repeat what they hear from others. Oftentimes, children ages 7 and below do not even know what certain bad words mean, but they use them anyway to draw reactions from both adults and their peers. They may have seen how foul language stirs up strong responses one too many times from grown-ups and kids alike, so they want more of that. Your 7-year-old may have frequently heard those words from adults around him and so he thinks such language is normal. Consequently, it is important for you to be calm and not to overreact.
Talk separately to both your sons, and ask each of them if they know the meaning of the bad words they use. If they don’t, it might be helpful to explain to them what they actually mean. It may not be the most comfortable chat you will have with your children, but it is surely one of the most significant. Children will eventually learn what these bad words mean, perhaps through their peers. Hence, it may be better that they get this information from you so you can process their understanding the way you think is best.
How you explain these words to your 7-year-old will be different from how you talk to your 4-year-old. Ask the older child what possible consequences there may be when he uses such language. Explain to him that while others consider this language “cool,” a lot of people may get offended. Be brief and use simple words when talking to your 4-year-old. Keep in mind that he was just saying what his brother told him to say. Offer alternative words both kids can use, such as “sheesh,” “gosh,” or as what SpongeBob Squarepants would say, “Tartar sauce.” Be creative and use words that kids may deem funny but are acceptable.
Acknowledge and praise both kids whenever they refrain from using foul language, or if they use the alternative words they came up with. Adults, too, share a big responsibility in making sure their words and actions are acceptable, especially when children are around.
Sharon Co, psychologist, PsychConsult, Inc.
Ma. Lourdes Quijano, psychologist and curriculum coordinator, Second Mom Child Care Preschool
Smart Parenting Magazine: November 2004; June 2005; May 2006