Pre-schoolers are language sponges. They pick up words quickly, and swear words are no exception.
In fact, research shows that most children know a four-letter word by the age of two.
One reason young children swear is because they are exploring language. They might be testing a new word, or they might be swearing accidentally while learning to say new words (so ‘sit’ and ‘truck’ can come out sounding like swear words). They might be just repeating words they’ve heard, or they may think it’s a cool new word to try. Young children are just learning to use language to communicate, so they mimic any word they can. They’re not trying to hurt or offend anyone; they won’t even know what the words mean. They’re just developing their verbal skills.
Another reason for children to swear is because they are looking to get attention. When adults swear, they tend to emphasise the words, which makes them stand out to youngsters. Our children are quick to pick up on this. The next time the child needs attention, they remember the word(s) that got their attention before – and use them. When that swearing comes out of the blue, it’s not easy for us to ignore. We might get upset, or we might laugh. Either way the child gets attention, and they remember this for next time.
So, the first time swearing happens, our best response is to ignore it. No eye contact, no talking. If the behaviour is attention seeking, they’ll be less likely to use the word again if we give it no reaction. Staying calm is the key (and doing our best not to laugh).
It’s best to avoid confronting our child about swearing if they do it when they are angry or upset. That will just compound the problem. We should sort out why our child is upset and deal with the swearing at a calmer time.
If the swearing continues, one approach is to encourage our child to make up their own silly expressions to use instead. Alternatively, a swearing jar can be a good solution – but make the fine hefty enough to discourage swear-bombs.
Of course, we might have to clean up our own language first!