Why Children Use Inappropriate Words

Find out how to set appropriate limits when your child uses language that isn't.




Q: My son Andrew, 4, is a sweet boy, but he often jokingly says bad words to other kids, and in front of their parents, or even to a teacher! Some of what he says doesn't bother me much, but they really upset his dad and other adults. One mother told me that her child isn't allowed to play with Andrew until he gets out of his "phase" of saying bad words. I've told him not to say these things, but he responds with comments such as "You're a penis head!" Help!

A: I like the term inappropriate words or the phrase using words inappropriately better than the term bad words because most of the offensive things young children say aren't "bad." Penis, for example, isn't a bad word. The problem is that children sometimes say words at the wrong times, in absolutely the most alarming places. (I'm thinking of a child who had just sat through a two-hour church service and was asked by the minister, who should have known better than to set himself up like that, how she liked it. "Very, very boring," the little girl responded. Although boring isn't a bad word, at that moment, her parents thought it was extremely bad!)

The words we wish they wouldn't say, or wish they wouldn't say when they do, can be grouped into five categories:

  1. Names of body parts we consider private, plus their many nicknames
  2. Bathroom words and body products (poop, poopy, poopy head, pee-pee, etc., all frequently preceded by the word stinky)
  3. Religiously significant words used improperly (for example, some parents might not want their children to say "damn," "hell," or "God")
  4. Sexually charged words kids overhear when adults — or other children who have overheard adults exclaim them — use them as expletives (the "F" word and such)
  5. Innocent words embedded in questions, observations, or statements without regard to social conventions, which are probably unknown to the child ("Do you have a lot of money?" "You are brown," "I don't like you because you walk with that funny stick.")

Children Need to Feel They Belong
Why do so many young children say things that freak us out? As we all know, one of every young child's biggest projects is to get attention, because it's one of every child's biggest needs. Parental attention is crucial. Whether positive or negative (second-best, but better than nothing), children have as big a hunger for attention as they do for food.

One of the most basic needs children have is for a feeling of belonging, and having the attention of a loved one is the best indicators that he or she "belongs." Some clues about what to do for Andrew over the long haul are to include him in daily activities and provide one-on-one time with you, his dad, and the other people he most likes so that he isn't driven to get attention by upsetting his father. 

By age 4, most children are not only in preschool, but also are having playdates at friends' homes, where there's a group of children and one or more adults. Here, too, kids have an urgent need to feel they belong. Again, the main way for them to do this is to gain attention. What better way than to say things that scandalize the other children and engage the adults in charge? We discount how important children feel it is to win admiration from their pals. Many children will risk a teacher's wrath to win peers' attention. We adults tend to think that the rewards and punishments we give are the only feedback that counts, but this is far from the truth. Here, too, grown-ups can encourage activities that give the child who is using inappropriate words a more acceptable way of getting attention. 

Can you talk with Andrew's teacher and friends' parents about different ways of garnering attention? You can also encourage everyone to teach other children to ignore, rather than delight in, your son's fondness for inappropriate language. What else can Andrew do that appeals to his playmates? 

Personal Power
Every one of us, including young children, needs to feel that he or she is capable of affecting others and is competent in a number of areas. This is particularly true of preschoolers, who are becoming increasingly aware of themselves as unique human beings, separate from their families. Startling or even shocking people with the things you say is an extremely effective way of affecting others.

Preschoolers find it exciting to play with words. This is another form of asserting one's power. So join in! Make up silly words and rhymes. Parents often feel so pressured to teach their children how to behave that it's easy to forget that kids need to have fun, too.

Respect Is the Issue
To me, the real issue is learning to respect the feelings of others. If certain words, questions, or remarks are likely to offend, children need to be taught to be thoughtful and to avoid saying them. Help Andrew understand the link between the use of inappropriate language and a lack of respect during conversations with him and when incidents arise. Ignore some of what you hear, occasionally intervene to substitute acceptable silly words for those that are offensive, and share in the fun that your son can have with more appropriate words.

When he says: "I see your butt," and giggles
You can respond: "I see your [feet, arm, or head, for example]," and you can giggle, too
The objective: To continue your child's idea of fun, but to convert it into something acceptable.

When he says: "Oh, God!"
You can respond: "I know you're frustrated and angry, but it isn't okay to say 'God' when you're angry. It upsets many people [or me] to hear that word used in any way except respectfully. When you're angry, maybe you could say, 'Oh, man!'"
The objective: To teach him to be sensitive to the feelings of others.

When he says: "You're fat!" to an obese person
You can respond: by smiling at the person. Include him or her in your conversation. Say, "People come in all sizes, shapes, and colors."
The objective: To teach him to be sensitive to the feelings of others.

When he says: "You're a stinky poop" at the dinner table
You can respond: "I don't want you to talk about bathroom things while we're eating," and change the subject to one sure to interest your child
The objective: To set conversational standards for mealtimes.

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