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How to Discipline a Child for Bad Language

By Christa Miller ; Updated June 13, 2017

As much as you want to protect your child, your shield can only reach so far. He will inevitably hear bad language, whether from his friends at school, from watching television or simply from accompanying you on a post office errand. He will also almost inevitably try out a few vulgar words in his own language. How you decide to discipline him for using bad language depends mostly on his age and your personal values.

  1. Hold back shock or laughter. Your initial shock at hearing your child use a vulgar word or “potty language” may even turn into amusement. Parents magazine online encourages parents of younger children to control their responses; a strong response such as laughter or anger may cause your child to continue that language to evoke a similar attentive response in the future. In fact, if you ignore the language, your young child may realize that it isn’t an effective attention-grabbing tool, and he may stop using it altogether.

  2. Set clear expectations from the beginning. As soon as your child begins to show that she knows the difference between neutral and “bad” words, discuss with her what language will not be tolerated. You may categorize words by level of tolerance -- ones that you dislike but will “slide” (e.g., “dumb”) and words that will never be OK, such as racist and sexist words -- or you may simply give your child a list of words that are totally unacceptable. Ask her to come up with all the bad words she can think of and code them with the first letter, such as the “F” word and the “S” word. Add some of your own if you think she knows more and her list isn’t long enough. Also team up in finding curse word alternatives such as “shoot” and “fudge,” or silly expletives such as “boohockey!”

  3. Follow through every time with a punishment. Warn your child of bad-word consequences before he tries to use another one, and enforce those consequences every time you hear bad language. Some parents get creative with techniques, such as sending their children to the bathroom every time they use “potty” words, but an older child may respond better to lost privileges, such as a quarter subtracted from allowance for each offense.

  4. Praise your child for using wholesome language. She will be more likely to want to use more constructive words if you praise her when she uses them. For example, you may say, “I love that you used your big vocabulary to express your anger rather than choosing to cuss.”

  5. Practice what you preach. Your child may have heard bad language coming from his own home. Don’t expect your children to use good words if you and your partner have trouble holding back your own profanities. Apologize if you accidentally let a bad word slip out, so that your child doesn’t begin to assume that cussing is “grownup."

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