Dear Polly, Benny is as cute as they come, but when this 4-year-old opens his mouth, you wouldn't believe the bad words that come out! A few other children have already started following his lead, and I worry that more soon will because most of the boys in the class admire him so. Do you have any suggestions?

Maybe it would help to sort out the types of "bad words" Benny is using. You might want to respond differently if Benny is using "toileting" words--as so many 4-year-olds often are--or if the words he's using are sex-related or offensive to someone's religion.

Toileting Language:

Young children, especially around the age of 4, are discovering and exploring more and more intriguing things about themselves, including, of course, body parts and "products." At the same time, they're experimenting with the limits of their "powers" and seem to be saying, "How far can I go with this? What can I say and get away with before grownups draw the line?" In many ways, not just the bad-word department, 4-year-olds frequently push us to our limits in an effort to find out exactly where those limits are.

To make matters worse, normally developing 4-year-olds express themselves quite clearly--all too clearly, at times--and delight in playing with words:

"Hi, Pee Pee Head!" "You're a poopie. You're Snoopy the Poopie!"

Language With Sexual References:

If Benny uses this type of language, it's very likely he has no idea what he's talking about. I think I would pretend not to have heard rather than give the child the attention he's probably seeking.

Because everyone wants friends and to be admired, it's important that people of all ages connect with others. Help Benny organize a play activity (a complex block-building project, an outdoor running and leaping drama, a group in which Benny will tell a version of his favorite tale and show pictures from the story). In other words, help Benny learn constructive ways of getting his classmates' attention.

I think I would also take Benny aside later and calmly share the information with him that the word he used is not an okay word to use at school.

Language Offensive to Someone's Religion:

I've always responded to children who use offensive language in reference to God by converting the moment into an empathy lesson. "You know, Benny," I would say solemnly, "those words are very offensive to some people. If we say those words, we hurt their feelings. We try never to hurt people's feelings, so we don't say God unless we're talking to God or talking respectfully about God." You could also suggest to Benny that he discuss this with his family to find out what they think and how they feel.

People don't all feel the same way about children saying "bad words," and they don't all agree about which words, specifically, are bad. But to me, the bottom line is that we must be thoughtful about others, and this includes not saying or doing things that upset anyone.