Dear Polly,
There is a 4-year-old in my class who uses the worst words! The other kids think Andrew’s very funny and go on and on with it. Parents are complaining. I tell him not to say these things, but he just keeps it up! What can I do?

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 words. The problem is that children sometimes say words at just the wrong times in absolutely the most alarming places. The words we wish they wouldn’t say, or wish they wouldn’t say when they do, can be grouped into five categories:

• names of body parts we consider private, and their many nicknames (boobies, butts, and all the rest)
• bathroom words and body products: poopy, pee-pee (often used in colorful contexts), puke (often followed by “on you”)
• religion-related words (damn, hell, God, and so on)
• sexually charged words overheard when adults—or other children who have overheard adults exclaim them—use them as expletives (the “f” word and such)
• 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 wear that funny brace”)

It would probably be a good idea to ignore the words you mind the least, and zero in on those that are the most offensive to you and to the parents.

The Need for Belonging
By age 4, most children are beginning to move out into the world. We minimize how much feeling as if they are part of the group means to them. As every teacher knows, many children will risk her wrath to win the attention of their peers.
We can encourage activities that give the child whose behavior (saying “bad words,” clowning in the wrong situations, and so on) indicates that he seeks greater inclusion in the group a more acceptable way of getting it. I suggest that you talk with Andrew’s parents about this. Also, and this is very important, encourage the children not to show admiration for Andrew when he tries to delight them with his vocabulary. Removing the huge reward of their laughter and copycatting will go a long way toward extinguishing this attention-seeking behavior.

Personal Power
Every one of us, including every young child, needs to feel that he’s capable of affecting others and is competent in a number of areas. This is particularly true of 4-year-olds, 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!
Four-year-olds 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. Teachers are so pressured these days, it’s easy to forget that children need to have fun!

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. When incidents arise, help Andrew to understand the link between the use of inappropriate language and a lack of respect.
Work with Andrew to find other strategies for feeling included and popular in the group. Ignore some of what you overhear, occasionally intervene to substitute acceptable silly words for those that are offensive, and share in the fun the children can have with these more appropriate substitutes.

Polly Greenberg has been a child/parent/staff development specialist for 40 years. She has worked for the U.S. Department of Education, the Department of Health and Human Services, the War on Poverty, and other national programs.