Bad Words

askateacherHow do you phase out certain phrases that a child might have accidentally learned? My boy has picked up the phrase ‘damn it’ from listening to adults, and I’d like to phase it out of his vocabulary. My wife and I probably did the wrong thing by giggling when he used it because he was so cute.  Now we are more careful with our language, but he still blurts it out sometimes when he wants to get our attention. Any thoughts? —Jeff

Swearing—like any behavior that gets attention and really isn’t too bad—is a tricky behavior to get rid of. I’ll talk a little about what’s going on with “bad habits” in general, and then some strategies that might work for swearing in particular.

Any repeated behavior is repeated because it gets reinforced in some way. Sometimes the key to stopping an unwanted behavior in a child is to figure out: what’s the reinforcing result of the behavior? As you notice, swearing often gets reinforced early on by amusement (or, even stronger, stifled amusement) from parents. It’s tricky, though, because once a behavior gets set, it often only takes the tiniest, most occasional reinforcement to keep it going strong. You’ve stopped giggling when your son says “damn it,” but perhaps he can still see the corner of your mouth twitching, or perhaps every twentieth time he manages to put just enough pizazz into his delivery that he still cracks you up.

With some repeated behaviors, you can simply remove the reinforcement (once you know what it is) and the behavior will eventually extinguish (the behaviorist term for “go away by itself”). But you can’t change who you are or what you laugh at. So where does that leave you if you want him to stop swearing? For some possible approaches, I looked at Karen Pryor’s magnificent book, Don’t Shoot the Dog—the absolute best book (in my opinion) on using behaviorism in real life. If you want to influence the behavior of a creature in your life—your pet cat, your toddler, your boss—I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Pryor lists all the ways (all of them!) you could conceivably stop a behavior, and examines the pros and cons of each. I won’t go into the ones that aren’t likely to work in this situation*—let’s talk about the ones you should try.

One way to stop a behavior is to train an incompatible behavior (Pryor’s Method #5). For instance, your dog can’t beg at the table if you’ve trained him to lay down in the corner while you’re eating. In the case of a child swearing, think of something to replace “damn it”—something better! The need to swear in certain situations is natural, for children as well as adults. But there are so many better choices than “damn it”—phrases that are more fun to say, and that get a good reaction out of those around you, and that don’t offend anyone. Fiddlesticks! Farfegnugen! Mother of fruit! (Notice how many good ones have the letter F in them…) Jeepers creepers! You might have the best luck if the replacement curse starts the same as the old one—something like “ding dong it” to replace “damn it.”

You may be able to get him to use these new-and-improved curses by using them yourself, with gusto. Throw them into conversation, and really mean them! Children are most likely to imitate a behavior that seems real or spontaneous. See if you can contrive to drop something on your foot and let loose with a “Blistering blue barnacles!” That’ll get his attention. If and when you hear your son use one of the new phrases, give it the reaction you used to give “damn it”—and all of a sudden, you’ve got a new habit.

If that’s not your style, try Method #6: Putting the behavior on cue. As Pryor says, “This one’s a dilly.” You want your dog to stop barking? Train it to bark on command—and then never give the command. In preschool this is sometimes known as the “Time and a Place” strategy. Kids spitting? Praise them for spitting in the bathroom sink or the toilet. Kids kicking? Give them soccer balls or cardboard boxes to kick.

Personally I’ve found this method especially effective for “potty talk.” Kids talk about poop and pee because it’s taboo, and because it gets a rise out of people. As soon as someone mentions poop, I hustle them straight to the bathroom, and then encourage them to let fly. I’ll often help out—”Poop poop poopy!” I had a group of 5’s some years ago who, after about two days of encouragement, began to promptly come up to me at 4:30 every day and say, “Jarrod, we want to go talk about poop.” “Cool!” I’d say. I’d let them in the bathroom, where they’d shout about poop for five minutes, without bothering anyone, while I’d clean the classroom. Then they’d tell me they were done, and we’d go back out to the playground.

What would this strategy look like for swearing? You could say that “damn it” is something you can only say in your bedroom, and encourage him to say it there to his heart’s content. Or you could make a “damn it box”—you can only say “damn it” with your head in the special box, which you decorate and make fun. The trick would be to not react to him saying “damn it,” other than to (non-judgmentally) say, “Oh, quick, get your box,” and then praise him for doing it in the right place.

Finally, if neither of those seems right to you, sometimes a simple, honest conversation can work wonders. I don’t know how old your son is, but many children can start having meaningful conversations as young as 2½ years old. You sit down together—at a time apart from any particular instance of the cursing—and say, “I want to talk with you about something that’s been bothering me. I notice that sometimes you say, ‘damn it,’ and that makes me uncomfortable. It’s not a word that children should say, and it’s not really a word that grown-ups should say. I’d like us to make a plan about how to stop saying it.” Children generally want to make the adults they care about feel good.

Real dialogue is tricky with kids—but actually no trickier than with adults. The “trick” is to be honest and to genuinely listen. Given that, children will often surprise you with their thoughtful attention and creative solutions.

* * *

* Okay, I’ll say a brief word about punishment. Many caregivers have an instinct to use some kind of punishment as a response to bad words—time out, or spanking, or being sent from the table… Pryor points out that punishment can indeed be effective at stopping a behavior, “if the subject understands which action is being punished, if the motivation for doing the behavior is small, if the fear of future punishment is large, and finally, if the subject can control the behavior in the first place. [Also,] if the behavior is caught early, so that it has not become an established habit.” If all those criteria are met, punishment might get the result you want. But punishment is also very likely to teach things you don’t want along the way—things like evasion, and resentment, and that those in power can do whatever they want. Other methods of stopping a behavior are probably more effective, and less likely to come with negative consequences.

* * *

If you want to read other blog posts I’ve written about changing children’s behaviors, try this one and this one. And here’s an article I wrote for parents about using observation techniques to understand your child’s behaviors.

If you’re having trouble with your child’s behavior, I can help!

And if you have a question to Ask a Preschool Teacher, send it to me.

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