My Child Said the F-Word, Now What?

Parenting

My Child Said the F-Word, Now What?

Three experts weigh in on how to navigate curse-word convos with your kid.

Written By Alexandra Macon
Illustration Maria Tabet

Every month, my friends and I gather for a highly anticipated moms' night out. After a few glasses of rosé, any pretense is usually gone and the conversation devolves into #realtalk. At our last meet-up, Elizabeth, a prim-and-proper mom in her mid-30s, revealed that her 4-year-old son had started dropping the F-bomb. She was mortified and at a total loss for words (even though her son clearly isn’t).

“He’s going around the house pretending to be Buzz Lightyear saying, ‘To fucking infinity and beyond!’” she explained, clearly distraught. “I’ve tried telling him in a calm voice not to do it but it’s not working. It keeps happening. What if he says it at school?!”

If I’m being honest, my older daughter had a potty-mouth moment of her own not too long ago. So what’s a parent to do in these situations? We asked three experts.

1. Stifle the laughter (hard as it may be).

“Responding either positively by laughing or negatively by yelling often reinforces bad behavior,” said Dr. Amy Margolis, an assistant professor of medical psychology at Columbia University. “I recommend that parents explain the words they want a child to use, and then also mention that there are other words that are not nice. This approach is based on the broader principle that children respond well when parents tell them what to do rather than what not to do. For example, at the swimming pool, it's more helpful to tell children to walk than not to run.”

2. No hitting, biting or saying the B-word.

Dr. Kelly Geisler, a New York-based child psychologist, added that it’s important to tie your explanation to something a child can understand. “By the time they're five, many children have learned it’s not nice to say things that hurt other people’s feelings — so you can start by simply explaining that using those words can hurt other people’s feelings.”

Dr. Philip Lowe, a pediatrician at Palmetto Pediatrics in Charleston, South Carolina, echoed this by suggesting that parents relate it to behaviors the children understand. “Most children know not to hit and bite, but until they say a bad word, they don’t really know it’s a bad thing. If your child continues to use bad words after repeatedly being told not to, there should be a punishment like a time-out for younger children or restriction from a favorite event or toy for older children.”

3. Watch your own language.

And then there's the issue of where the child learned the naughty word in the first place.

“Parents have to understand that if children hear cursing in the house they are more likely to continue using curse words themselves,” said Lowe. If the child picked up the language from a friend, he doesn’t recommend informing the other child’s parents. He instead suggests using it as a teaching moment by explaining that just because someone else uses bad words it doesn’t make it okay for them to use them too.

It’s typical for kids to want to experiment and push limits — and it’s especially exciting when it comes to words that elicit a strong reaction.

“Parents should keep in mind that many five-year-olds can be impulsive,” added Margolis. “[Sometimes] this makes it hard for them to hold back from saying something they know is wrong even though they may want to follow the rules.”

During dinner, we probed my friend to see where her son could have possibly learned to say, “To fucking infinity and beyond!” She said she had no idea but proceeded to use a four-letter word of her own before the meal came to an end. Needless to say, the jury is still out.

Alexandra Macon is a co-founder of the wedding website Over The Moon and a contributing living editor at Vogue.com. Follow her on Instagram at @overthemoon.