By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

(This article is updated from “Touchpoints: Three to Six,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.)

Children first hear “dirty words” at age 3 and 4. Their understanding of language at these ages is sophisticated enough for them take note of the special intonations and contexts associated with such words.

But if they are to understand what is different about dirty words, they need to experiment, to try them out. No one takes them too seriously: “Mommy, you’re a poo-poo face.” “Daddy is a fat bum-bum.”

At most, each parent reacts with a cringe, then a laugh.

“Where did you hear that?”

“From you.”

Parents are usually not satisfied with that, even when it’s true: Whom did he play with yesterday? Did he learn it from him, or did he hear it on that television show?

Parents do need to be concerned because they must teach their children about language, its uses and its power. Their job is to model behavior and create an environment in which children can learn how their words and actions affect others.

Parents’ work is harder than ever as offensive sexual talk (not all talk about sex need be) becomes ubiquitous on television, radio and the Internet.

But overreactions just make the swearing and dirty words more intriguing to children and give them a power they will want to try out.

Some parents have threatened a taste of soap or hot sauce for these offenses. But bodily harm is unacceptable under any circumstances. If discipline is teaching and the goal is self-discipline, such punishments are counterproductive.

Why do parents overreact? A child who swears challenges a parent’s desire for him to fit in and please others. Dirty words may seem like another sign of growing up and that parents are losing their control; they may appear to signify loss of innocence – so hard for parents to face.

Already parents have fears about how a child will fare in a dangerous world. It may frighten them to see their child so vulnerable to imitating peers.

Everyone in the family knows it will get worse. Kids from down the street will become models, and a young child is bound to imitate their dirty words and bring them home to try out on parents. Sexual curiosity and four-letter words are right around the corner.

By age 6, a child will have segregated himself into a group with his own gender. He will already be learning to swagger and stride, to swear and to use dirty words, to engage in gender-linked play. The strong identifications with parents from 4 and 5 are now beginning to be played out in peer groups.

At 4 or 5, a child’s way to discover the limits of a taboo is by testing his parents over and over after an initial overreaction.

Innocence has now turned into outright provocative behavior. A parent worries, “Will he use it in public? What does it mean? Could he have been molested?”

All these fears may run through parents’ minds as they respond: “We don’t say words like that! We don’t swear in this family!”

But often it’s not that simple. Parents who sometimes say swear words themselves may now wish they hadn’t. How confusing for a child to understand that what comes out of his mouth is treated differently!

Instead of being offended when a child swears, a parent might try to discover the reason for it.

When you can damp down your response, the offensive words will begin to lose their interest and you will hear them less often. If your child uses them too freely in public, use such an incident as a teaching opportunity: “When you say these words, people are upset. Those are words we don’t say unless we want to bother other people. Is that what you mean to do – or does it just slip out?”

In saying this, you are attempting to place your negative view of swearing and dirty words in context – that of sensitivity to other’s feelings.

In the relative hierarchy of offensive behavior, swearing is more innocuous than most, especially if ignored, and thereby eventually extinguished. Children aren’t likely to become chronically foul-mouthed in an environment that doesn’t value swearing and dirty words.


If you are concerned about your child’s use of swear words, and if you or other adults also use them, trying to cut back can help. Try substituting benign substitutes such as “darn” or “shoot.”

Moderate your reaction to a child’s use of naughty words because the reaction may only encourage a repeat performance.

Try to fathom why a child says the words and use the occasion to teach that language, good and bad, really matters in how you are perceived.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.