Toddlers: How to Stop Them from Swearing

My three-year old has started to swear. Amazingly he uses all the words in their correct context. I have pulled the plug on many TV programs, where I believe he has learned this behavior. What can I do to get him to stop using this "talent" he has already acquired?


Your three-year old is discovering the "power" of language. Amazingly, it doesn’t take kids long to figure out the really important words. At this age, your son is exploring and learning about lots of things. He is knowledgeable enough to know that he is no longer the biggest, most important thing in the world. He now knows that there are lots of things that exist that he can’t even see and doesn’t even know about. This is both exciting and discouraging for him. On the one hand there is so much for him to explore. On the other hand, he is not such a big fish in a little pond any more. Consequently, he is looking for all of the things that help him to feel a little more powerful. Swearing is one of the things he can access that has a really big effect on the people around him.

As well as his fascination with power, he is equally fascinated with the magic of language. He wonders what about these words makes them so important. "Why do they have different significance depending on who you say them to and how you say them?" "Why can words that describe your body be 'bad' words?"

Three-year-olds also love to experiment with language. They love to make up words and new word combinations. They love to play with words and to tell jokes. Swearing fits perfectly with the things that fascinate them at this age.

Also, children don’t know the meanings of most of the swear words they use, but they are trying hard to figure them out. Running them by several people to get a reaction is one of the ways you can figure out what words mean.

Lastly, three-year-olds are not yet fully proficient at expressing their feelings. They are moving away from physical expression like hitting, biting, throwing and kicking and now they are experimenting with expressing feelings using their words. Swearing is one of the methods they explore as they look for satisfying ways to express their feelings. There are several things you can do to help your child figure out answers for all the complex questions he has and to also help him learn socially acceptable language:

  • Ask him questions. Children use lots of words they only partially understand. Ask your child what he thinks that word means. This will give you an idea of what his level of comprehension is.
  • Give him information. Once you have an idea of what his understanding is, you can give him some information which will help him learn both what the words mean and how people feel about their use. The definitions of most swear words are inappropriate for four year olds and would be difficult for them to understand. However, you can give him enough information so that he will understand the specialness of the words.

    The most important thing for him to know is how people might respond if they hear him swearing. "That is a word that means ‘poop’ and when people say it to each other, it can hurt feelings." "When you say that word, it is the same as calling someone ‘dummy’ or ‘stupid,’ and that hurts people’s feelings." "Saying that word means you want bad things to happen to that person." "People say that word when they are angry or frustrated and don’t know how else to express their feelings."

    The other confusing thing for kids is that different people have different reactions to swearing. His friends at school may think it is hilarious, but he isn’t likely to get giggles out of Grandma with his use of curse words. You can tell him that some people think it is funny, but that most people including Grandma, your neighbor, etc. don’t like to hear those words.

  • Think about his sources. It seems you have already discovered that television is one of his sources for swear words and have limited his access to it. Often children will learn swear words from their young friends. Since they are so interested in peers right now, it is difficult to discourage your child from using the language his friends use, however, you can tell him that even though his friends sometimes like to use that language, it isn’t language you use in your family. The other common source is parents or other adults in your child’s life. If it is really important to you that your child doesn’t swear, parents may have to change their own language.
  • Provide alternatives. Kids are more likely to abandon difficult behaviors if we give them viable alternatives. If your son is working on expressing his feelings, power and developing interesting language, you can offer him some alternative words. "If you are really angry, instead of swearing, you could say, ‘I’m furious,’ or ‘I’m irate.’ Both of those words mean you are very, very angry." "'Damn' is an interesting word, but it is a swear word. Let’s see if we can think of some other words. How about slim, slam, flam? Can you think of some other funny ones?" You can also provide him with alternative places to use his swear words. "Those are words I don’t like to hear. If you need to use them, please go into your room and close the door, so I don’t have to hear them."
  • Give him a little time. Because a three-year old is really invested in his own ideas, it is going to be hard for him to give up the language he has just discovered on his own. He may need to do some more experimenting before he can abandon it completely. You can gently remind him that you want him to find other words to use and even ignore it some of the time (after you have given him some information and told him how you feel about it.) Most children grow out of it and adopt the language used by their family.
Need Advice?
Get answers from iVillage experts and other moms just like you!
Question Details
  1. Pick a subject:
Connect with 1,039,394 members just like you
Share your knowledge, ask questions.