A case of bad words: How to clean your child’s dirty mouth

Do your kids say bad words? There are days when I hear something that draws my attention and I turn and am shocked to see it was my child who has the dirty mouth.

my kid said a curse word, what do I do

image credit: Photostock

Makes me comment under my breath “ohnoyoudi-nt.”

It certainly doesn’t help when you’re at Homegoods and your 2 year old daughter says “Oh. My. G-d. Look at that picture!” and the entire training staff starts laughing and commenting on her cuteness.

Or when your Kindergarten son shouts out “oh CRAP!” when he falls and 6 people run to his rescue.

And all the while you’re trying to figure out where he picked up “crap” and where she first heard “oh. my. G-d” because you know that you always say “goodness.”

Why is your child saying bad words?

What gives? And what should we do?

The honest truth: this is a test. Whether she’s testing you to see how far she can get, other people to see their reactions or her own mouth to see how things sound, she’s doing a test.

She heard it, somewhere. Whether you slipped and dropped the f-bomb (oh, come on. You know you dropped it last Friday night when you dropped your glass of red wine on the tile floor) or she heard a bad word on TV or from peers at preschool, she heard it. Perhaps she overheard two people talking at the table next to you at Chili’s (that, my friends, is a whole other parenting post to come); she had to hear it somewhere to know how to say it. So. Admit it. Somewhere along the way your beautiful peanut’s ears were tainted. She likely learned the word “listen”  in the same way she learned the phrase “what the Hell?”: because she learned to listen.

In fact, generally, a child needs to hear a word three times to understand it’s meaning* and use it in her own vocabulary. So. There’s that. Someone likely said “bullsh!t” a lot over the past few days for her to shout out “Mom! That’s bullsh!t!”

How do we stop our child from using bad words?

Now it’s time to teach your child that she just failed her first test. That it’s not acceptable to say bad words and that you absolutely won’t stand for it. (Unless you will. And then you must be reading my post for humor, yes?) How? Like always, be firm and honest. Hide your smirk (turn away for a millisecond to get that giggle out), get on her level and tell her that words like “crap” are not acceptable and you don’t want to hear it again. Tell her it isn’t nice. Tell him there are other words to use and help him come up with acceptable words. 

Long ago, our family called these words “NTWs” (meaning Non-Tapawingo-Words–Tapawingo being the overnight camp I attended in Maine). In our house we call them “NPWs” for Non-Pron-Words. We have a mental list of NPWs and anytime someone utters or shouts a new one, we add it to our mental list. Even dads can be caught saying an NPW. And, let’s be honest, it’s really fun to scold Daddy for saying a bad word, right?

Be firm, but don’t punish your child unless he knew he was doing wrong

Remember the person at Chilis who said “bullsh!t”? Was he punished? Did someone get down on his level and tell him he wasn’t acting nicely? Probably not. In fact, it’s likely that the people at his table were listening intently, or got a good laugh out of him when he was talking. In other words, he commanded attention and received it. So, your child’s experience with the word “bullsh!t” does what it’s supposed to: it garnered positive attention.

While you’re explaining that the word shouldn’t bring positive attention and that you don’t like or approve of the word, make sure you don’t punish your child for the first or even second offense. Be sure to explain that it’s not a nice word to use and then tell the child that the next time he uses the word, he’ll be punished. Of course, by the fourth (maybe third) offense, punishment is necessary, because now you’re pissed angry.

Here’s a simple idea we implemented in our home: Bad Word Mug.

Positive attention: good; Negative attention: not good

This applies to so much more than foul language. Some kids will do anything for attention, as long as they receive it. It’s a classic case of need. And after a while of not receiving a lot of good attention (really? do you ever applaud your child for saying “well, will you look at that picture!?”), he’ll turn to negative attention (“Oh. My. G-d! That picture is a piece of crap!”) just to get something. Here’s where being firm and standing your ground comes into play. Do not overdo the attention you give to the bad word. Calmly, sharply tell him that it’s not acceptable, and then move on. Because if saying a bad word brings more attention than necessary, then you becoming excited and going on and on saying “we don’t say that” might make him want to say it more.

There’s a line in the middle somewhere, between ignoring and overdoing. Find that line. Be firm. And say “no.”

*Somewhere along the road I learned this in one of my education courses. Sorry. Can’t find a citation. But it makes sense, right? The more repetition, the greater the understanding.

mom of 3 and wife living in the Philadelphia suburbs, Julie is a former elementary school teacher and a Public Relations manager. She is the owner/editor of Julieverse, a merchandiser with Chloe + Isabel (jewelryverse.com) and founder VlogMom and Splash Creative Media. A marketing strategist and freelance education and parenting writer by trade, Julie attempts to carve out time to enjoy playing with her kids, PTO, cooking and exercise.

© 2012 – 2013, Julie Meyers Pron. All rights reserved.


  1. says

    Great tips, I completely agree with how you deal with it. Luckily we haven’t had a bad word issue, but I’m pretty conservative and things like “dumb” and “stupid” are bad words in our house as well. I know this will be something I’ll have to deal with unless I keep my girls in a bubble, luckily I have great posts like this to turn to.

  2. says

    Isn’t it amazing how they know exactly which words are the bad ones? When my younger son was three he dropped something and yelled the F word. I was shocked. Instead of making a huge deal I told him that wasn’t a nice word and not to use it anymore. It worked. Now my boys sometimes say words that are not great but not cursing either, so I typically let those go.

  3. says

    We’re lucky in that we generally have fairly clean mouths. Unfortunately, my parents do the “oh my God” and the “what the heck” and have no issue with the wee ones repeating it. I do. Invective coming from the mouth of a 6 year old just isn’t cute, even when my mom encourages her to say “oh jingles” every time something doesn’t go her way. *sigh* I’m debating whether to start a swear jar… and I’m close to doing it.

      • janessat says

        My 6 year old son is obsessed with saying pee pee, butt and booty. lol He recently got sent to the office for it. I know he thinks it’s funny and the kids laugh but I’ve tried everything I can think of and can’t get him to stop! Advice?

        • says

          you know, I go back and forth between ignoring and punishing. But if he’s been sent to the principal’s office it sounds like it’s a big problem. It sounds to me like he’s reaching for negative attention–or any attention. Most kids just grow out of it, especially if people start rolling their eyes rather than laughing. Since it sounds like he’s doing it at home and school, I’d recommend conferencing with his teacher to come up with a consistent plan that will put an end to it. Perhaps a reward chart–every day that he doesn’t act inappropriately he gets a sticker. 5 stickers and there’s a reward… or something like that. Good luck!!

          • janessat says

            Ok, Thanks for the advice. He doesn’t do it so much at home. I think it’s more about attention from the other kids at school. I will definitely try the rewards system though and see how that works out:)


  1. […] classroom. Sure, you listened to my advice (and, ahem, so did I) back in January when I told you positive attention is good and negative attention is bad, but there’s a time when negative attention might be a bit more demanding than the positive […]

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