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A modern family dilemma… Toddlers and swear words

My daughter said a bad word!

I knew it would happen eventually. Thankfully, as far as we know, she has only said it in front of her father and I. (At least daycare has not told me they have heard her say anything.) And yes, I must confess, I am sure that she heard it at home. Jeff and I monitor what we say, monitor the TV, and try to set only good examples. But, we do slip.

This has also been somewhat of a “hot topic” in the media lately due to a recent episode of Modern Family in which the 3-year-old character, Lily, also utters a bad word. On the show, Lily’s dads have to figure out how to handle this situation just like me and my husband have had to with Audrey.

So how do I handle this you may ask?

Last night was the discussion. The explanation that there are okay words when we are upset or something happens and then there are “bad words.” During this discussion though I realized that in my description I sort of glamorized the “bad words, the forbidden language.”

What kid is not going to be tempted to try out those words when there is such mystery surrounding them. They are only words after all. And what defines “bad words?” What is a potty mouth in some families might be acceptable everyday language in other families. How do we remove the excitement of “getting away with something” that drives the experimentation in some children?

For Audrey, at 2 years of age, I feel that a discussion of nice and not nice will suffice at this time. She is very into things that are “nice” – like hugging or sharing, and things that are “not nice” – like hitting, biting or taking toys away from brother. But during this discussion there was a glimmer of testing from Audrey, just a hint of trialing her father and I to see how much she could push us. I do not believe that the discussion of “nice and not nice” will be sufficient motivation to eliminate those behaviors. So I remind myself of other ways to handle the situation.

1.) Prevention is key. Avoid exposing your children to behaviors that you do not want them to imitate. Remember that you are your child’s role model– we are working on this one:)

2.) Explanation of right and wrong and expectations — we have done this.

3.) Remove the shock value. If we do not respond in an escalated manner then it will not be as fun to test us.

4.) Ignore the behavior. This is the technique that we used when she was spitting at us when she did not want to follow our directions or the rules. Her behaviors escalated for a few days and then disappeared and we have rarely heard “pthh” as a response since.

Any discipline techniques you have found helpful in your house with regards to bad language?


  1. Reply
    Cristy February 7, 2012

    I doubt we could hear Audrey over the crazy of the rest of the toddlers. lol 

  2. Reply
    Jessica schilling March 10, 2012

    Empathy seems to help me – explaining that some words are hurtful. How would you feel if… Or simply saying its not appropriate or giving my 5 year old some other choices.  Oh fiddlesticks! I often say it breaks my heart if I hear a hurtful word. Simply some words are yucky… most importantly conversing with your child about questions they have on how our world works. This is why I don’t say these words do you think I am making a good choice?  

    • Reply
      Dr. Mom March 12, 2012

      Definitely. Many people think that empathy is just something that children will do naturally. I think that you must teach your children empathy by 1.) being empathetic with them 2.) discussing and giving names to feelings and emotions 3) giving them practice. For example, when Audrey was just about 20 months old there was a girl crying in the nursery at church. I told Audrey that she should go and invite our new friend to play or maybe give her a toy as a kind gesture. Wow did it melt my heart when she did just what I suggested and it worked. I think you are correct when you say we must first set the example for our children and then teach them how to deal with their emotions and reactions. There is an excellent article from kidshealth that you can reach through the Dayton Children’s website through the search engine entitled “Teaching your child self control.”

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