We want our children to learn to speak in a respectful way. What do we when our children start using potty talk or bad language? I had a reader write to me with the hopes that I would have a post about how to handle bad language in children. Since I hadn’t written on the topic yet, her message inspired this post so I could address not only the heart issue behind swearing but also develop a plan to tackle the behavior. When interacting with our kids, just keep in mind that you are responsible for how you respond.
I think it’s great for all of us to reflect how our language portrays reflects on who we are. I love Dr. Laura Schlesinger’s quote found below, “Language is our way of communicating what we want and who we are. By using bad language, we diminish the divine spark within us that defines our humanity.”
Children often find potty talk funny. Parents have different expectations when it comes to the kind of language they will allow in their home. We are probably more conservative on the issue, shying away from words that are on the edge of swearing. We don’t want words to be used in derogatory ways. Others will be more lenient on the issue. I know many families will find that their kids will eventually cross the lines when it comes to the standards in your home.
There are guiding principles of parenting that I have learned from the Pritchards at Axis Ministries. They are dear friends, and they run an amazing podcast. When one of my readers posed this question, I contacted them for guidance while also incorporating some of what we do and some of my own thoughts into the answers given here. As parents of 11 children, the Pritchards have much wisdom to share, so I hope you’ll follow them on Facebook and take an opportunity to listen to their podcasts or tap into their parenting resources. The guiding principles I learn from them are incorporated into the following strategies for how to handle bad language in children.
How to Handle Bad Language in Children
In regards to parenting, I encourage you to check yourself first. In this post on attitude, I reflect on how the attitude problem in our home really had its roots in me. If your children have a language problem, make sure to watch how you use language.
You may say to yourself, “We don’t swear or use the language my kids use.” This may definitely be the case. These little sponges pick up language from a number of other sources.
One area you can check immediately is media. Are they watching things that use language or behavior you don’t want your kids to repeat? I never wanted my kids to watch Caillou because I don’t like the way he whines. We also chose not to do Sponge Bob because of the kind of humor in the show. As you can see, even kid shows need evaluation.
That said, kids are going to grow up hearing bad language around them. The question isn’t whether we can help them avoid hearing swearing or potty talk. That would be impossible. We don’t want our children in a bubble. We are asked to not be of the world, but we are definitely living in the world. While I wouldn’t let this be an excuse to expose kids to R rated movies or media that isn’t age appropriate, it is encouragement that we can’t shield them from everything for the rest of their lives. As they age, they will be exposed to more – at school, in media and in the homes of others.
If we can’t shield them from everything, what is the answer? The solution comes through conversation and winning over their hearts on this topicf. What does conversation on this topic look like? If we are watching a movie together and a word comes up that I would prefer my children not to repeat and they know the word, I might say a quick reminder that those are words that we don’t want used in our family. Some words we hear in movies or shows include “god,” “butt,” or “shut up.” As they get older and the shows get more intense, we might model turning off a show that goes against the way we’d hope our family to communicate. The conversation doesn’t stop there as we examine the heart of our kids.
Tackle the Heart Issue
With all things in parenting, we want kids to begin reflecting on the heart issue behind their behavior. We want to win over their hearts not just their actions. If we address only their behavior, it would be synonymous to putting a band-aid on skin cancer. There are deeper issues that need to be addressed.
As Christians we believe in memorizing scripture to help not only understand the heart behind our actions but also to have verses to claim when temptations and sin want to overtake us. There are a few great scriptures to tackle language. Psalm 19:14 says, “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.” Another great verse to memorize is, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” – Ephesians 4:29. I also like Ephisans 5:4, “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.” Why not spend some time memorizing one or all of these verses as a family? We want to remind our kids that Christianity is not about being good. We strive to be better to reveal the glory of God and his forgiveness he has showered upon us. This can be done through the words of our mouth.
If we simply enforce the memorization of scripture but don’t help them make a connection, there will often be a detachment from the lesson. Asking a lot of questions helps kids reach their own conclusion. “Why do you want to use bad words?” (other people are doing it, it’s funny, it’s habit because I hear others doing it). What does the Bible say about it? How do you think your words reflect who you are and what you find important? How do your words reflect God? Do these kind of words help or harm? Often, you can follow up a question with a question.
Our kids will internalize more from their own words than a lecture from you. Help them reach conclusions by asking poignant questions. This kind of approach works especially well with older kids (5+).
It is helpful to get them reflecting on the kind of people they want to be. How do they want to present themselves with peers, at school or in a future job.
At the heart of it, kids don’t want to disappoint their parents. I know it might not always feel like it. They might not choose to do the right thing or get into a battle for control. However, they want their parents to be proud of them. Without drawing out the issue, you can simply say, “I’m disappointed that you are choosing to use this kind of language.” Be sincere. You may be feeling anger, frustration or annoyance but calmly saying, “I’m disappointed,” doesn’t lead to a fight. It leads to them considering their behavior.
Don’t Make it a Battle for Control
We don’t want our parenting to turn into the battle of the wills. You could argue with your kids on this issue. You could give consequences every time a naughty word leaves their mouth. You could get angry or loud. I would encourage you to not engage with your kids in this way. I know I’ve been trying to be better at staying calm and gentle rather than turning it into a fight. It does take two to fight, and you can easily remove yourself from that equation. That said, it doesn’t mean they win and can continue in the behavior. Something still may need to be done even if you have tackled their influences, their heart issues, asked the right questions and expressed disappointment. What do we do if the unwanted language (or behavior) still continues?
Their Life Looks Different Until the Action Changes
If the problem still persists after your guidance in the issue, I would encourage you to alter how their life looks. What does that mean? It doesn’t mean an angry with phrases like, “You’re grounded for eternity!” It doesn’t mean they sit in time out every time they say the word “butt.” I want to give an example of what this could like for your kids.
Maybe Johnny is having a hard time with his language. He’s using words that you’ve asked him not to use. He also uses language that puts down other people. His siblings are getting the brunt of it. You’ve used all the methods above, but there has been no change. Next time Johnny says, “Hey, Kevin invited me over to play you can calmly respond with, “I’m so sorry. Right now I can’t really trust the kind of language you are going to use around other people. Until we can really see a change there, I’m not comfortable with having you head to friend’s house.” The end. He will want to argue, but I’d encourage you to not engage in the battle. You’ll need to see a change in behavior before life returns to normal.
Maybe the kids want to watch a show. You could say, “You know, I’m not quite sure where you are learning the language you’ve been using in our home. I don’t have time to sit and monitor every show you are watching, so until we’ve got this language thing under control, I think we’ll keep the screens in our home off for a while.” The end. Just make sure to follow through and then allow them return to life once the language issue is eliminated.
It’s not a consequence every time they use bad language, which can turn into a battle control or you nagging. It’s just a matter of fact change that alters their life until they make the adjustments needed. This natural cosnequence comes when they express something they’d like from you or a privilege they are requesting.
The strategies suggested for how to handle bad language in children are general principles that can really be applied to a variety of situations that arise in parenting. We always want to model the behavior we want, try and get to their hearts, express disappoint with re-occuring behavior, disengage from a big battle and give consequences in a calm and impactful way.
There are different stages of parenting as shown in this great PDF. Understanding these stages has really helped me wrap my mind around my children and how to parent them at their different ages. This technique really hits home in the second and third phases of parenting – the training and coaching stages.
I hope this post helps as you tackle the parenting issues that are occurring in your home.