My 4-year old has recently discovered bad words, and he has been swearing up a storm! His two older brothers laugh hysterically, even though I beg them not to encourage him. I'm afraid he's going to say bad words around my parents or our neighbors. What can we do to get him to stop?
When we want to change a troubling behavior in our child, it's best to start by recognizing the ways that the behavior makes sense. Here are my thoughts about your situation:
1. Identify the payoff. What is your son gaining from spewing forth naughty words? If he is your youngest, chances are he has discovered a way to gain what feels like a bucket of admiration from his brothers. Or he may find it thrilling to turn on what I call MOM TV or DAD TV -- his parents' dramatic reactions to his potty mouth. It could also be that he simply likes the experience of trying on what he believes to be grown-up language. (This is especially true if he hears the adults around him using those words.) By first considering what the payoff is for your son, you'll be better able to help him meet his needs in healthier ways.
2. Help your son feel powerful. 4-year olds live in a world where, from morning to night, they are told what they can and cannot do. Look for ways to help your little feel important. Put him in charge of something -- perhaps he can be the one who calls everyone to dinner. Or let him have the job of checking and watering the flower beds. By treating him less like the baby of the family, he'll be more inclined to behave in a grown up way.
3. Enlist your older sons' help in an effective way. Oftentimes, we ask our children to adopt our problems as their problems. While you may be understandably concerned about the harm your littlest boy might generate if he uses obscenities around your parents and neighbors, your older boys don't necessarily share your worries. Instead of trying to force them to stifle their laughter, ask them -- genuinely -- for help with your problem. "Guys, I know it's a crack up when the little guy swears. I understand that hearing those words come out of your brothers innocent little mouth is really funny. And I know it's really hard to stifle the laughs; I have a hard time sometimes, too!" By approaching them as allies, you have a much better chance of enlisting their help.
You might then continue with something like this: "So, I get that it's funny, and I'm concerned about how uncomfortable Grandma might feel if your little brother uses those words around her. Can you help me out by walking away when he starts to swear?"
By making it clear that you're asking for their help for your problem, you will awaken a more natural desire to help you out.
4. Provide him with a place to cut loose. While some parents may feel their children should never swear, I have seen that approach backfire. Placing too tight a rein on what a child says -- which ultimately is outside our control -- can promote a recklessness in a child, especially if they know they will get a big reaction from the adults in their midst. Instead, tell your son that he is allowed to use bad words when he is alone. "You can use those words in the bathroom, or when you're in your room by yourself. But when others are around, they are not allowed."
5. Model kindness in your language. It probably goes without saying, but do keep an eye on the words your children hear you use. Nothing has more influence on a child's behavior than how we conduct ourselves in their midst.
Nearly all children find it exciting to experiment with naughty words. How we handle this phase will play a large part in determining whether swearing becomes an ongoing problem or a temporary phase. Hopefully, by following these tips, your little boy will find it less tempting to blurt out those expletives.
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and the brand new Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.
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