What to Do When Your F*#king Kids Swear

life-cycle-of-cursing-after-kids-article“Mommy, what does ‘I fuck your buttocks’ mean?”

My friends have a lovely little boy in an English-language preschool in Budapest, and this was what he’d learned in school that day (although presumably not as part of the official curriculum).

The little boy’s mom wrote to me for advice, apparently thinking that since I write about parenthood I actually know what I’m talking about. She writes: “What to do if your preschooler brings the F-word home from school?” I advised her to say this:

“Well, Davie, ‘fuck’ is a word probably of Germanic origin which signifies the sexual act, but also is frequently used as an intensifier, although in this case it would seem to be the former. ‘Buttocks’ is another term for your bottom, so when you say “I fuck your buttocks” what you’re saying is that you have sexual congress with my ass. Does that explain it for you?”

She continued: “My problem – how to explain things to him without direct translation [English is not the language they speak in the home] or an actual explanation of what it means.”

Oh. Then I suppose my original answer is perhaps not appropriate for the situation. Hmm…how does one deal with their kids – particularly young kids – when they bring home bad words?

Depends. In this case, you have a little kid who has no idea what the words even mean. First thing, don’t freak out. Don’t make a big deal of it. I think it’s enough to calmly tell him that those words are not polite and shouldn’t be used. The Women and Children’s Health Network advises: “You might say firmly something like: “We don’t use that word and I don’t want to hear it again” and then ignore it and do not respond if the child tries it out on you again.”

If he says, “But Mommy, you use that word,” tell him, “Well, that’s different you little fucker.” No, tell him that you probably shouldn’t, and ask him to remind you when you slip up. Obviously modeling good behavior is much more effective than the “Do as I say, not as I do” approach.

Chances are older kids will have a pretty good idea that what they are saying is considered ‘bad,’ and in many cases are simply trying to get a reaction from you. If you think that’s the case, don’t get sucked into the dirty word drama with an overblown reaction. Again, simply telling them calmly that they are not to use such words will probably be enough. If the swearing persists, though, it might be time for a bit of discipline. “Depending on their age and the circumstances, time out, suspension of certain privileges or grounding may be appropriate,” says the Child Development Institute.

If the cursing stems from anger or frustration – your daughter calls her sister a ‘bitch’ during a heated argument or your son lets fly with a ‘shit!!’ when he’s repeatedly foiled in his attempts to build a LEGO brachiosaurus – then I think it’s probably best to resolve the source of the anger or frustration, then deal with the bad language when the situation has cooled.

Of course, there’s a difference between “This homework is bullshit” and “Fuck you Dad!” The latter is abusive and needs to be dealt with immediately, but as a case of verbal abuse and not one of language. Teaching respect – for parents, teachers, siblings, peers, well, everybody – is far more important than curbing the cursing. “I would be much quicker to jump on my kid for saying an unkind thing,” says a mother in an interesting NPR article on the subject, “even if he used perfect language to do so.” I would agree entirely.

It’s also important for kids to understand when and where cursing is appropriate. Swear all you want when you’re hanging out with your friends, but understand that most of that kind of language will lead to trouble with teachers, parents, and, ultimately, employers.

I’m in fifth grade, and my good friend Bunz (yes, that’s what he was called, but that’s another story) and I are sitting under the dining room table, writing ‘love letters’ to the object of our mutual desire, a guiltless little girl I’ll call ‘Jennie’. We’re writing (on index cards, for who knows what reason) in explicit detail our admiration for various bits of her anatomy and in exactly what ways we would like to demonstrate our appreciation of them.

We’re smart enough to know that what we’re doing is gross misconduct – that’s why we’re under the table – but not smart enough to remember not to leave the cards lying on the floor. My parents, of course, discover them. These ‘letters’  are not only fairly sexually explicit, they are also peppered with the most flagrant profanities.

A bit later my father comes to my room, closes the door, and sits on the bed. He’s not angry, and he doesn’t raise his voice. He simply puts the index cards on the bed and watches as I flush crimson and begin to sweat.

My father asks me if I know what those words mean. I tell a partial lie, saying that golly gee wizz, I have no idea what they mean. In truth, having four older siblings and having discovered my brothers’ stash of porn mags, I have a pretty good idea. He asks me where I had heard those words. It is then that I demonstrate the quality of my friendship, promptly throwing Bunz under the bus and pinning the blame squarely on my disreputable associate. My father nods, and simply tells me that the things I had written were not nice, not appropriate, and that he didn’t want to see them again. And that was the end of it. No punishment, no recriminations.

I think my parents handled that extraordinarily well. They’d been gentle and understanding, but firm and clear in their message.

Back to the present. My friends’ preschooler has come home having picked up some spicy new language. You can’t control what classmates and peers are going to say around your kids, and you’ll ultimately have very little control over what they hear in pop songs or on television. What you can do  is decide what your family’s policy is when it comes to cussing, and stick to it in a firm but low-key way.

It’s almost certain that your kids will be cursing like sailors (although having worked for many years in kitchens I think the term should be ‘like chefs’) around their friends by the time they’re reached their teen years, but as long as they know when and where it’s okay to do so, then don’t worry about it. As the expression goes, “Don’t sweat the small stuff. And it’s all f–king small stuff.”

Grand Avenue 1-14-12


What do you think? Have you encountered this yet with your kids? What is your approach? We’d love to hear what others have done about this (in my opinion relatively minor) issue. But maybe it’s a big issue in your family. Please share your thoughts. 

26 thoughts on “What to Do When Your F*#king Kids Swear

  1. Our three year old is generally pretty good. He can identify swear words, and will actually pull you, or anyone else up on it if they swear. We are pretty casual about it, we don’t encourage it by any means. But, i do find it a little hard not to laugh when he does manage to swear in context. Kids swear, as long as they understand it’s naughty, and when they should absolutely not swear, i have no issue with it.


    • When my kids swear, however innocuously, I find it hilarious. But I do try to put a reasonable stop to it. Depends on the words used. When and where is the key, and guiding them along that path is the only thing you can reasonably do. Thanks for the read and for leaving your thoughts!


  2. My daughter is only five months old and just does baby babble at this point, so if she has been cussing me out I don’t know about it. However, I spend most of my time babysitting my sister’s three daughters. The oldest is three, and she also has two-year-old twins. My sister and I curse A LOT. More than we should. We censor ourselves in public, but at home we pretty much let our much-loved curse words fly free. This wasn’t an issue before, but now my oldest niece is picking up some of our favorite cusswords. There’s no reason to get mad about it, they learn language just like they learn almost everything else, by watching the adults in their life. I simply tell her that that’s not a nice word, which is, of course, followed with her “But why do you and Mommy say it?” So we’ve edited the “not a nice word” to “that’s a grown up word, little girls shouldn’t say that.” I don’t see it as a big deal though, our parents cussed like crazy in front of us and we know how to censor our language when the situation is not appropriate for it, and let’s face it, they’re all going to cuss wehn they grow up. I’m not worried about trying to keep them from cussing, I just want them to know when it’s appropriate and when it’s not.


    • Oh, that bitch has been cussing you in babybabble without doubt. I think your approach is entirely sensible. Teach them when and where these kind of words are appropriate, and they’ll be fine. When she’s sworn in as President of the United States, just make sure that she knows that the appropriate response to “Do you undertake blah, blah, blah?” isn’t “Fuck yeah!”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. My oldest daughter, (I think you might know her) came rushing out of her room when she was about three and half, maybe four, after she heard be let go with “GD it!” and told me that “you don’t say GD it, daddy says GD it”. So I asked her what does mommy say and she said ” mommy says Oh, sh*t”.

    She hadn’t come out of her room to tell me not to swear but that I was using the wrong expletive. Who says kids don’t listen to their parents?


  4. I have three kids. My daughter is about 10 years younger than my sons. When she was a newborn I announced to the family that we weren’t going to teach this one to speak. That’s failed miserably. She’s now 12 years old and super verbal. I’m not sure where she has learned all her words but at least she’s often amusing.

    But seriously, she and I just had this conversation yesterday while we were driving back from the White Mountains. She was explaining how insulted she is when adults swear and then apologize to her as if she is some fragile dimwit who is unable to discern what to do with certain words. She went on to lament that just because she herself doesn’t swear doesn’t mean that when others do, it offends her. (She was discribing swearing in conversation to strengthen meaning…not using language to insult or attack someone.)

    On a side note, there’s no way your father bought your story.


  5. I am so guilty of not kerbing my tongue in front of my kids, yet thankfully they seem to (mostly) accept my double standards that they can’t use the same bad words I do. I was acutely embarrassed and ashamed when the f word popped out of my then 4yo son’s mouth when at the park with a very unsweary mum friend. Her face, aaaargghhh! But a more recent issue was now-8yo using a word that isn’t swearing but is about something very bad indeed, which he didn’t understand, yet neither could I explain to him (rape). I had to say it was a very bad thing a man could do to a woman, and I would explain when he was older, and that he was never to say it again. Bit tricky. Anyway fantastic post as always, you’re so right about treating others with respect being more important. I will be interested to see other comments, I’m sure your readers will share their parenting-swearing experiences.


    • I always had you pegged for an unrepentant cusser, Fiona – glad to hear that my hunch was right. Look, I think it’s pretty universally agreed upon that you shouldn’t swear around your kids. But sometimes it happens. For me you just apologize for the bad language and get on with your life.
      The rape thing is a bit tricky, but I think you handled it well. I’m not sure what I would have said. Since I tend to be a full-disclosure dad, I probably would have told him that it’s when a man forces a woman to have sex against her will. We haven’t talked about sex since he was three, but he watches enough nature documentaries to have a pretty good understanding of the basic concept. Hard one, though.
      Anyway, thanks for visiting!


  6. I agree. My son is to young to talk but when he does start to curse you have to be calm and explain to them that its not appropriate and as they get older they will do it but only when they know the correct times.


    • For me it’s all a question of age and context. I heard our 4 year-old bust out with ‘jackass’ the other day, something he picked up from his mother. I ignored it, and haven’t heard it since. As I haven’t otherwise heard either of our kids using bad language, I haven’t had to opportunity to follow my own advice. I think the days of literally washing kids’ mouths out with soap is pretty much over, though. Thank goodness. Well, thanks for visiting and leaving your thoughts!


    • Hey Tad, just read your post on baby-wearing. I wore my kids everywhere too. I recall our neighbors being shocked when I took our 7-day-old son out for a hike in his sling, but I figured there was no real reason not to get the kids outdoors early.
      I do have a question – how do you come down like a ton of bricks on OTHER people using bad language around your kids? Do you deck teenagers at bus stops? Bomb the local radio station? It just doesn’t seem possible to shield your kids from swearing. In this instance the little boy in question was simply repeating something he’d heard in school. You can’t really do much about that, no?


      • Well, obviously there’s limits to how far you can extend your fiefdom. But, thankfully, mine are only 3 & 5 right now. The ton of bricks part generally only happens when my wife & I have folks over or when we’re at parties, and the grown-ups start forgetting there’s kids around. When the stories and their corresponding colorful language starts getting shouted around, that’s where the bricks get released — as us parents are the people my own kids tend to listen to. “Dad, what’s a fuckwad?” I don’t need that sort of thing right now.

        Other places in public – bus stops, train stations, etc – right now, my kids don’t seem to pick up on their conversations much. They treat it like the expletive-emitters are just speaking German or something, and blessedly don’t pay it much mind.

        But I have, on more than one occasion, had to go and be “that annoying parent” at the playground who has to tell the loud boys with the proclivity for profanity to can it, as there’s little kids around.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ll admit, I laughed out loud at “Well, that’s different, you little fucker.”

    And I think you’re right that it’s important to be relaxed about language. My kids are 19 and 16 now, and they curse like chefs, but they also know when it’s appropriate to swear. I like that they’re comfortable enough with me that they can use curse words in my presence. Any abuse and name-calling has been nipped in the bud. The other day I asked my son (the 16-year-old) what he was learning in English class, and he said “Just bullshit,” and I accepted that answer, because he has been raised in France, and I GET IT.

    I agree with you: it’s a pretty minor issue, and the most important aspect of it is teaching kids when it’s okay to swear, and when it’s not.


    • Ah, I like how you slipped the ‘curse like chefs’ in there so naturally. I think this may catch on. 🙂 For me it’s all contextual. Your kids are going to hear bad language nearly everywhere, and chances are they’re going to start using it. For tweens it’s almost some kind of rite of passage. They just need to sort out when and where it’s okay. Thanks for your comments!


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