What to do when your toddler drops the F-bomb

The first time it happens, it's freaking hilarious. The next few times, less so. Eventually, it's panic stations. Here's what to do if your toddler's got a potty mouth.

dad reacting toddler swearing

I will be the first to admit that I swear. A lot. It’s a combination of having a very short fuse, a low dickhead-threshold and the fact that when it comes to communicating (verbally, of course) I reckon there’s no point wasting a sentence when a simple, well-timed “F*ck” will suffice.

As someone who is 99.9% impossible to offend, the conversations I have with my mates are quite often peppered with some of the most brutally offensive phrases known to mankind.

And that made things tough when my two boys started learning to talk. I tried to keep the bad language to a minimum while their tiny little brains soaked up every syllable I uttered.

I failed miserably, of course.

At one point, the house was sounding like a half-time pep-talk from an enraged AFL coach – partly because a toddler was bellowing obscenities to try to make daddy laugh, and partly because of the sound telling-off I was getting from my missus for inadvertently encouraging him.

So, to avoid finding yourself in a similar position, here’s a rundown of common reasons toddlers bust out the blue language, and what you can do to nip it in the bud.

Mispronunciation

This is when your toddler is trying to say a different word, and it comes out wrong.

When my youngest hilariously ballsed-up trying to say ‘fire truck’ I damn near pissed myself laughing. Which was precisely the wrong thing to do.

He quickly latched on that if he said it, it would make Daddy happy. And so, it began in earnest.

What to do/not to do:

Try not to laugh (or react in any way) and instead correct their pronunciation. Evidently, this is far easier said than done.

Definitely, don’t encourage junior to repeat it over and over to show your mates, or so that you can upload it to YouTube whilst justifying that the millions of dollars it generates in ad revenue will fund your kid’s future education.

As hilarious as it is at first, you will regret it later.

Mimimcry

Sweary toddlers are often parroting a sweary parent who didn’t do enough to curb his or her own potty mouth when the kids were around. (Like me).

While the ‘fire truck’ incident kicked things off, it probably didn’t help that my boys had heard me say that same word every time someone struggled with the ticket machine. Or didn’t go when the traffic light turned green. Or any one of the hundreds of little things in life that set me off.

What to do/not to do:

Firstly, try not to swear around them (again, easier said than done). But be advised, you need to do this long before they start to speak:

Even when they’re barely talking themselves, babies’ brains are little sponges soaking up every sound you utter and tucking it away for later.

By 12 months, when your baby can only say 2 or 3 words, they can understand about 50. By the time they can utter 40, they’re packing 170!

Imgur user ‘Jonjiv’ tracked his son’s first 100 words and plotted the results on a chart (below). See how his kid’s language suddenly explodes around the 16 to 18 month mark?

Dad charts baby words by age

Source: Jonjiv

Also note how ‘sit’, and ‘duck’ both make an early appearance? Needless to say, if you haven’t watched what you’ve said in the months prior – ‘shit’ can literally hit the fan.

If, like me, you find yourself struggling to cut out the expletives, you could try using other words in their place (fudge/shoot/fire cracker, etc.), at least when the kids are in earshot.

Perhaps not so much when your mates are in earshot.

Oh, and be careful what you play on the TV/ radio/ laptop too. (Remember: sponges!)

Attention Seeking

Toddlers love attention from their dads – especially if they’re able to do something funny that will make dad happy and laugh.

Perversely, if you get mad or scold them, that’ll backfire too – toddlers love testing their boundaries, and will take any attention they can get.

Life becomes a game of “what can I get away with before Dad gets so angry his face goes beetroot purple, he has an aneurysm and drops dead with rage”.

That phase generally starts around about 2-3 years of age and stops when your kids turn about 20, or die doing something profoundly stupid just to see if they can.

(For proof of this, feel free to look up any of the hundreds of videos of teenagers doing dumb things like gymnastics 20+ floors above the ground on high-rise apartment buildings – but be aware, it’s something of a YouTube rabbit hole, and you will eventually see someone die.)

But I digress.

What to do/not to do:

Don’t feed the troll! Instead, don your best poker face and give junior donuts. Don’t flinch. Don’t gasp. Don’t even raise your eyebrows or glance in your partner’s direction.

Toddlers are mini-Mr. Myagis: your discomfort is the fly. Their brain: the chopstick.

The parenting gurus over at Raising Children Network concur:

“The most effective way to deal with your child’s swearing is to ignore the swearing completely. No talking, no eye contact. If the behaviour is attention seeking, this is often the best way to stop it.”

Non-parenting expert/random internet user ‘Jamaro‘ also shared some parenting gold:

“Try modeling a different “bad” word: Junior is in earshot, you drop something and you say “Yogurt!” and then clap your hands over your mouth and look guilty. Your kid will be gleefully screaming YOGURT at every opportunity within the week.”

If the problem continues, (and your toddler is old enough to understand), a basic talking-to might be in order, as the Raising Children Network suggests:

“If your child continues to swear… try talking to her about her choice of words. For example, you could say, ‘We don’t use words that upset people’. Preschoolers might not fully understand the words they use, but they can understand that swear words can hurt or offend others.”

Alternatively, you could take a leaf from random internet user OriginalName37‘s parenting book:

“We told (our kids) that if an old person heard them say one of the really bad words (…) the old person could die. This has worked so far.”

To express anger or frustration

If your kid is swearing when they get angry or throw a tantrum, then you have your work cut out for you.

The good news is they’re likely a little older, which means you can talk with them about it. The bad news – if you too swear when you are angry – you’re going to have to work on that part too.

Seeing you do it teaches kids that it’s a normal way to express frustration.

My eldest boy has inherited a number of traits from me – including my short attention span and even shorter temper. So he’s almost exactly as likely to move to Defcon 1 with minimal effort, and then out come the curse words.

Getting around that hurdle took some time, and some one-on-one talking between father and son.

What to do/not to do:

I gave Blake the benefit and wisdom of my 44 years on the planet (plus I looked some stuff up online and re-read some of the poorly-photocopied hand-outs I got from Anger Management classes about 12 years ago).

The basic message is simple: it’s okay to be angry – being angry is a completely normal emotional response – but it’s how you show your anger that matters.

So – calling your little brother the kind of thing that wouldn’t sound out of place on a gangsta rap album is most definitely in the ‘not how to deal with things’ column.

Instead, we practised standing up, walking away and counting quietly to ourselves until our anger subsided, before returning to the task at hand and giving it another go. That worked well.

We also worked on redirecting our anger onto an inanimate object. That didn’t work out quite as well, after I discovered Blake with his little brother’s teddy bear in a death grip, quietly whispering a seething rage of unspeakable things he was planning to do to it.

“Drop the bear, go outside, and count until you’re calm again, mate…”

He was in the backyard for about 15 minutes. I can only imagine what the neighbours might have heard.

RELATED: How to (safely) diffuse a toddler tantrum

The other (and harder) part is to lead by example and role model better ways to express and communicate feelings to your kids:

So, instead of your usual, asterix packed reaction when you step on a lego, bare-footed in the hazy hours of the morning, your response might be more along the lines of: I FFFeel very frustrated that this sharp, tiny object was left on the floor instead of packed away, or that a toy manufacturer sees fit to arm small children with tiny landmines – invisible to the sleep-deprived eye”.

Evil lego

What happens when you sleep at night. Source: Samsofy

As they get older…

As your kids get older and go to ‘big kid’ school, they will learn all sorts of ‘new words’ – this is unavoidable, so it’s a good idea to lay out some ground rules.

First, agree with your partner what you view as ‘acceptable’ language: are some words okay to say at home, but just not at school or at Nanna’s house? Set it straight, and then discuss it with your kids once they’re old enough to understand.

We learnt fairly early on that both the boys were okay with setting up substitute words, which they were free to use in place of the kind you wouldn’t want them spouting off in polite company.

“What the flippin’ fudge, man?” became the go-to whenever something went wrong around the house – like the iPad crashing at an inopportune moment, or if I committed the cardinal sin of removing the kids from the bath in the wrong order.

By this stage, both of my sons are fully aware that there’s an F-Word, an S-Word, a D-word, and several B-Words – and that Fudge, Shoot, Dingle, Blasted and Boofhead are all fine, when used in an appropriate setting. As I said, works wonders, but it turns out that grandparents might not see this as a polite or acceptable solution.

I’m saving the big reveal of the C-Word for when Blake turns 10 – it’ll give him something to look forward to for his birthday, unless he learns it from one of the bigger kids at school.

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