Dear Polly, There is a 4-year-old in my class who uses the worst words! The other kids think Andrew's very funny. 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 can be grouped into five categories:

  • names of body parts we consider private and their many nicknames (boobies, butts, etc.)
  • bathroom words and body waste products: poopy, pee-pee (often used in colorful contexts)
  • religion-related words (damn, hell, and so on)
  • sexually charged words used 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?" "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.

The Need for Belonging

By age 4, most children are beginning to move out into the world. Many children will risk a teacher's wrath to win the attention of their peers.

We can encourage activities that give the child whose behavior 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, encourage the children not to show admiration for Andrew when he tries to delight them with his vocabulary. Removing the reward of their laughter 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 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.

Respect Is the Issue

To me, the real issue is learning to respect the feelings of others. 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. 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.