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All children go through a phase when they use “bad” language. This behavior used to be most prevalent around age 4. These days, because most children are in preschool of some sort and all children have access to TV, the bad words pop out earlier truly out of the mouths of babes.

Preschoolers can be obsessed with naughty language, especially “bathroom” terms. They love saying things like, “You’re a piece of pooh-pooh!” to peers and grown-ups alike because they consider such phrases clever and witty. They quickly learn that these terms have the power to shock people and they revel in this power. Think about it. If you were only three years old and weren’t very powerful, wouldn’t it be fun to get people to react, or overreact, just using words!

Most children tire of these expressions soon when they learn that pleasing people gets them further than does shocking people. But while the child is going through this phase parents have a dilemma. Parents instinctively realize that they should not call undue attention to these words because the kids get such a kick out of shocking grown-ups with them. But parents also tell me, “I don’t want my kids to talk like this.”

What to do? One woman told me that when she or her sister uttered a bathroom word, her mother made them sit in the bathroom. An appropriate sanction!

Here are the Heins Do’s and Don’t's for dealing with bad language in preschoolers:

• DON’T spank the child for using bad language.

• DON’T wash the child’s mouth out with soap. Anything that hurts or humiliates children makes them angry. Angry children are not in the right mood to learn about future behavior.

• DON’T use four-letter words yourself. We live in a casual and pretty crude world. Four-letter words are heard in the workplace, school, on the street, on TV. Often parents don’t realize how lax they have become about their own language until they hear their child repeat some of the words.

• DON’T ever laugh or act as though the words are cute. Bad language is not cute, its use bespeaks ignorance and rudeness. When my own grandson came up with some shockers, it was hard not to laugh. But parents must make a real effort not to laugh because that will reinforce the tendency to use the words again.

• DON’T ever scream, “Don’t use the word _____!”

• DON’T make the child repeat the offending words one hundred times. This is supposed to make the word lose its offending power or make the word boring to the child. This doesn’t work. And the logic is terrible–why should a parent make a child say a word over and over again if the parent wants the child to stop using the word?

• DO ignore some bad language. If you can stand it, pay no attention to the silly bathroom talk. If it upsets you, quietly tell the child not to use those words, without making too big a fuss which only adds to the child’s sense of “word power”.

• DO make sure the child understands which words are acceptable. When you hear an offending word for the first time, quietly kneel down and whisper something like. “We don’t use that word in our family.” The intimate whisper often intrigues the child and the word is not used again or not as often.

• DO use appropriate discipline if the bad language gets out of hand. Today children hear totally unacceptable language on TV or around the neighborhood. If your four year old is in the habit of using such words, put the child in time-out. Here is one place it is suitable to use a warning because children may not know that they have used an offensive word–after all it was on TV. “That word is never acceptable. If you use it one more time you must go into time-out!” If the word pops out again, put the child in the time-out place. When the timer goes off, tell the child, “The rule is no swearing. If you use that word, then you must be timed-out.”

• DO monitor and limit TV. If your child hears people on TV using unacceptable words, take the opportunity to say, “We don’t use those words. There are zillions of words people can use instead. Let’s think of some or look in the dictionary.”

What does a parent do when the swearer is a teenager? No parent should have to listen to obnoxious language or experience rudeness. Quietly say this kind of talk or this behavior is not acceptable so you will go to YOUR room. This unexpected twist on a familiar refrain may get the teen’s attention.