I write a lot about Power. Young kids love feeling powerful. You see them engage in powerful actions like throwing stones in water, hauling heavy logs, being up high, swinging high, climbing, running and wearing superhero capes.
But words offer tremendous power, too. Particularly those words. You know the ones: potty talk, stupid head and general swear words.
Words we don’t want to hear – and often try to ban – are experiments in power. When kids hear a new word, one that comes with high drama, they love to try it out. What will mom say? How will dad react? When can I use this awesome new powerful word to get an instant reaction?
The key to coping with “bad words” is to recognize the power and attention kids are craving and meet those needs in other ways.
Swear words are powerful words people use to get through tough times. As Calvin says in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, “Life’s disappointments are harder to take if you don’t know any swear words.” Bad words carry big power. They also guarantee attention. Recognizing why kids use these words can help reduce the shock and drama.
- Give an alternate location. Censorship rarely works. Kids love the illicit thrill of saying an off-limits word. Instead, tell kids “you can say that word as much as you want – in the bathroom.”
- You have a right not to hear it. If you child wants to spout potty talk, there’s really no harm in it – but you have the right not to hear it. Direct your child to the bathroom and shut the door, or designate another space. Often kids just need to get their giggles out. They’ll come out when they’re done.
- Be dull and give no reaction. If you explode or give a juicy reaction, kids who crave power are likely to say the same word again and again. They now know how to push your buttons. Be as dull and calm as you can be.
- Create new Power Words. Let your child come up with her own unique powerful “swear” word. Say “That’s a word mommy says when she’s really mad. What’s your word when you’re really mad?” Kid power words make great substitutes and include words like: Picklerash, Chop Chop, and Funnelburgers.
- Focus on the emotion, not the word. If a child says “hate” “stupid” or something worse, first focus on the emotion going on. “Wow, you sound mad.” If you pounce on the word, the power game is likely to escalate. Find the emotion underneath the word. Deal with the emotion first, then address the right place to use that word.
- Give kids other opportunities for power. Make sure your power-seeking child gets his needs met. Make room for physical muscle work, big action, powerful roles (playing teacher, pirate or monster) or having jobs to help the family. Power and importance go together.
There’s more to bad words, including nuances about mean words, name-calling, x-rated explicit language, racist slurs, etc. If you’d like to learn more, see the chapter “Let Kids Swear” in the book It’s OK Not to Share…And Other Renegade Rules for Raising Competent and Compassionate Kids (Tarcher / Penguin, 2012), named a Best Parenting Book of 2012 by Parents Magazine’s Parents.com.
Heather Shumaker is an author, blogger and speaker who lives in northern Michigan with her family. www.heathershumaker.com.