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My wife and I both tend to have... colorful language (for me it tends to be far worse when driving). Our son just turned one, and is starting to become more verbal. He's not quite at the point where he's repeating whatever we say, but it is just around the corner.

While I think that we're well equipped to explain to him what is and is not acceptable language, it will likely be a while before he is able to make that distinction. While I generally consider profanity to be "just words", we'd rather avoid having issues with other parents or teachers.

What can my wife and I do to avoid our son picking up some of our more colorful vocabulary?

Slip ups will happen from time to time, at least until we can get used to the new restrictions. How can we mitigate the damage of any lapses? Are there any general strategies that can demonstrate proper behavior without causing confusion along the lines of "do what we say, not what we do"?

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Speaking as someone who can use all the best words the US Navy has to offer, if they were "just words" it wouldn't be hard to switch. Nope, they definitely carry weight. – Christopher Bibbs Sep 21 '11 at 14:52
Nothing personal, Beofett, but this seems like it has nothing to do with parenting and more to do with curbing personal behavior. Voting to close as off topic. – William Grobman Sep 21 '11 at 17:09
Learn to swear in Klingon? – Andrew Grimm Sep 22 '11 at 23:26
Answer = Stop swearing! If you cant control your own actions, how do you expect to control the actions of your siblings. – Ian Vaughan Sep 30 '11 at 8:53
Conversely, I swear all the time in my personal life, but certainly not at work with my students. It is possible to choose when and where. – Christine Gordon Nov 30 '12 at 5:13

14 Answers 14

up vote 31 down vote accepted

It's true: to stop swearing in front of your kids, you really have to stop swearing altogether. Like a lot of young couples, my wife and I swore casually in conversation, which kept the words in ready recall when you need an interjection for stubbing your toe. Even if you watch your mouth around the kids, when you get cut off in traffic or knock over a glass of milk, the words will come out before you think about them.

So here's the two step approach:

What works best is to come up with some harmless synonyms, and if they're amusing you'll be more likely to stick with them. As an easy example, we'd say "donkey" anytime we would have said "ass", which ended up cracking us up. Eventually the day came when our daughter pointed out to us something she considered to be "bad-donkey", and we decided even the euphemism should be cleaned up a bit before she takes it to preschool. It was surprisingly easy replacing the real swears with similar G-rate words, and it was perfectly easy to turn off the humorous synonyms later.

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As a teenager who actively stopped swearing, I can tell you that this works. The key to stopping is to never swear -- ever -- and a perfect way to do that is to replace cuss words with some other words. I typically used one word to replace them all, so the only way you could even distinguish different cuss words' usages was to know them already. If I say "son of a potato" to a kid and he doesn't know what the "cuss-word version" is, he can't even derive it from a list of known profanities. It's super helpful to quit, but using one replacement word globally has that extra feature. – Reid Sep 21 '11 at 22:19
I disagree that you have to stop altogether. That's one approach, but I found I had no problems keeping my swearing limited to certain groups (i.e., on army post, etc). This gets more complicated if the groups or situations mix. – r00fus Sep 24 '11 at 4:41
'Pants' is my favourite replacement word, but this works better in English English than American English I imagine. It's often more satisfying as an exclamation than normal curse words, although that may not accent-translate. – Stuart Pegg Sep 25 '11 at 9:44
@sXe: Exchanging a swear word with another word does not change that the child will learn the behavior of swearing. It fact, I learned to swear like an ace from someone using this very method... :-) ...meaning that I've seen people complete lose it after using this very method on them; which in fact makes me very happy, and is a lot more fun than "standard" swears. So, are you saying to stop the behavior, or the use of standard terms? – blunders Oct 7 '11 at 22:37
@blunders: What I meant is that you can ease out of the habit of swearing by first changing the words and then changing the behavior (which is easier without the original word associations). Just like your example, when my daughter seemed to be picking up the behavior of swearing even with silly words, it was a lot easier to stop saying silly words than it would have been to stop the initial swearing response in general. – sXe Oct 10 '11 at 3:53

Kids can and will quote you verbatim on the worst possible statements at the worst possible time.
To avoid that, moderate your language at all times when the child is within earshot.

I can sometimes bang my first into any nearby wall, or drop objects from a slightly-higher-than-necessary height, and I have seen my son imitate some of that for no apparent reason - probably because he doesn't see or understand what triggers my action.

Really, the only solution is to be a positive role model. If you can't, how can you expect it from your child?

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I wouldn't equate use of language to be particularly negative nor positive from a roll model POV. – DA01 Sep 21 '11 at 16:20
@DA01 I meant that statement in the sense of showing by example the kind of language (or behavior) you expect from your children. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Sep 21 '11 at 18:11
ah, gotcha. Yes, I agree. – DA01 Sep 21 '11 at 18:12
@tomjedrz Sure I can teach my kids that they can be better. They can be better singers, or swimmers. But those things are skills, not behaviors. For behaviors, I think being a role model is vital. If I don't want them to smoke, neither should I. If I don't want them to curse, neither should I. If I want them to drink alcohol only in moderation, so should I. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Sep 26 '11 at 20:13
@tomjedrz I'm not sure I follow you; let's talk in the chat if you like. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Sep 27 '11 at 17:52

The answer from the collective "Captain Obvious" ... Don't cuss in front of the kid ... is certainly correct. I don't expect it is very helpful to the OP, either. I am sure it occurred to him already, and I expect he asked here because he and his wife are struggling with it.

So the real question, as far as I am concerned, is ...

How do parents prevent kids from doing things that they themselves do?

This is actually a legit question, and actually comes up again and again as kids grow into adults. Topics include staying up late, chores, homework, drinking, sex, makeup, driving over the speed limit, etc.

The real answer is to lay down the rules and enforce them. This idea that we have to behave consistently with the rules we apply to the kid is silly. When the kid cusses, make clear that the kid is not allowed to cuss and apply consequences. When the kid protests that Daddy cusses, tell him that he is not Daddy, and when he grows up he can cuss all he wants.

Note: I am not downplaying the value of modeling good behavior. But the OP is trying and not succeeding. Does this mean he can't teach his kid? NO!

All parents have areas where they want to teach their kid to be BETTER than they are. And the way to do it is to enforce the rules, so that they become habits for the kid, and the kid doesn't fall into the same bad habits as the parent.

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Great answer, thanks! – Beofett Sep 27 '11 at 12:11

It took my husband and myself about 6 months (before the kids were born, so less pressure) but we were eventually able to stop. Now most, if any, of the cursing just happens inside my head.

You just have to find replacement words - "fudge", "shucks", "heck", "darn", etc. Once you have replacement words - it's a matter of replacing your vocabulary. It's a slow process, but it does happen. You both need to point out to the other when they forget. For example, if I'd accidentally let one slip, my husband would go - "what was that?" It's just a friendly reminder about a goal that we were both working for.

Having said that, if the two of you are not able to work on this together, it'll be really challenging. You both need to make a conscious effort in restraint - and have to want to stop cursing. If either of you thinks that it's not important enough, this is not going to work out well.

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You are asking how to prevent your kids from picking up your language without actually curbing your language. Short of forcing the kid to wear ear plugs, there isn't a solution for that.

So, assume he's going to pick up your language. At that point, you need to help let the child know when it's not OK to use those words.

In our house, we have a policy that those words are only acceptable when 1) you stub your toe or 2) the computer crashes. ;)

As an aside, I've made a personal goal to stop using said language in the car as I've decided that being angry at anyone on the road, no matter how idiotic they may be, only puts myself and family at risk. I now have a more zen approach to driving and just let everyone else be the jerk rather than myself.

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Well, you stated it's difficult, and I agree. I guess my opinion is that kids learn these words regardless if you're using them or not. The better strategy, IMHO, is to make sure the kids understand when it's not appropriate to use them. – DA01 Sep 21 '11 at 16:30
Ah, that makes sense. I agree about teaching about appropriate use being the best strategy. However, I think that between the ages of 1 and maybe 4-5 (guesses, since I'm not there yet) it seems that it will be easier for my son to learn to parrot what we say than to grasp the concept that "some words shouldn't be said in front of teachers or other children". – Beofett Sep 21 '11 at 16:33
That's true. But remember that kids of that age can say anything and they're still considered cute. ;) – DA01 Sep 21 '11 at 16:37
I think so, but my cousin's son's kindergarten teacher apparently didn't find the f-bomb being dropped in class as amusing as either of us did! :) – Beofett Sep 21 '11 at 16:45
It isn't a question them not knowing the language, it is a question of getting them NOT TO USE IT. This is best handled through standard behavior modification. Apply consequences when they curse. They will stop cursing around you, and will learn the overall lesson ... choose your language based on the context. – tomjedrz Oct 7 '11 at 23:29

If you find it difficult to stop, and can't reduce the number of cases to a non-problematic level, you could immediately and regretfully chastise yourself, not because you said the word, but because your reaction was inappropriate. Babies tend to be pretty sensitive to emotional context, and that would help give the impression that this is something you wish you did differently.

That is, I think, the most effective way to get across the "do as I say, not as I do" point. If you seem (even better, if you are) genuinely disappointed to be doing as you do not as you say, there is much less motivation to emulate your behavior. (It still might not work, but my parents managed to avoid passing on certain habits to all three of their children by using this tactic.)

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Well, I think the general consensus to control your own behavior is the route I'd take. Sure it's difficult, but you can't really expect your child to do (or not do) something you are not willing to do (or not do).

Check out this clip on mirror neurons from PBS and you can quickly see biochemically why modeling appropriate behavior is so vitally important! There is science behind the old saying Monkey See, Monkey Do after all.

And as you've said, controlling your own behavior can be difficult, particularly if you're trying to change old habits. For this reason, I think its important to be honest with your child and say something along the lines of "I know I've asked you not to swear, and I know that I still do sometimes. I'm working on it, but I'm having a hard time. I just wanted to let you know that I am really working on it."

That way the expectation remains clear, but so does your acknowledgment of your own behavior and the challenges of changing old habits. Better to not start in the first place is a valuable lesson in habits itself!

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+1 for discussing own weakness with our kids. Always a good policy. Yes, we want them to do better than we do, and that is normal and even possible. I know my kids seem to be way better people than I am. Part of me not messing them up has just been acknowledging to them that I struggle to live up to what I expect and know they can achieve in their behavior, relationships, faith, academics, etc. Oh, yes, and language too :-) – AgapwIesu Sep 28 '15 at 13:45

The other answers here are generally advocating that you change your habits of cussing. i'm gonna go against the grain here and tell you not to.

"but what about the kid?!" well he's 1. in my experience, you have at least a year probably 2 before it can potentally flop out there when you don't want.

and that's the key here. it MIGHT become a problem. it's not guaranteed. thinking back, of my 5 kids i'm not sure i ever had to have that conversation when they were pre-schoolers.

IMO you should focus on what you want to teach them, not on what you're afraid they'll learn. Proactive, not defensive. i mean lets' face it: there are more important lessons. if your 3yo is a stellar example of toddler behaviour when you go to a restaurant, it's largely irrelevant if they drop an f-bomb when they spill their drink ...might even be funny. but if they're exactly the opposite and are a ridiculous, crying, hollering mess in the restaurant, spill > fbomb is just as irrelevant.

now later on, say age 8-10, you may find that the kid is trying to stretch their boundaries by saying "crap" and "hell" or whatever around you... testing it out... seeing what they can get away with. I always stomp it immediatly. "that is an adult word that adults use for adult reasons" (yes i say adult that much) "and you're not an adult. besides, if your grandmother heard you, she'd kill us both."

You're not going to stop them from thinking it or hearing it or learning it. I just taught mine not to say it out loud till they're old enuf to deal with the consequences on their own.

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Do you think that < 1yo kids don't pick up language at all? Just because they can't talk yet doesn't mean they don't learn the words you use. You might have good experiences with your kids, but the asker is trying to avoid that situation. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Sep 25 '11 at 10:01
not at all. reading back, i suppose my point wasn't very clear. I suppose if every other word out of your mouth is... whatever, then it could be a problem. but my point was that generally, you have many other things to teach and you should focus on the positive. curb yourself if you feel it's appropriate, but i don't think it's required. – monsto Sep 25 '11 at 15:21

What can my wife and I do to avoid our son picking up some of our more colorful vocabulary?

Aside from not swearing in front of him?

... That was rhetorical. ;)

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I'll +1 this for being very short and to the point. But it's really not a good answer until it's elaborated a little. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Sep 25 '11 at 10:02
There really is no possible room for elaboration. The question posed was specifically "What can my wife and I do to avoid our son picking up some of our more colorful vocabulary?" Avoidance is purely and simply a binary action; you either avoid or you don't. There really is no way to ensure avoidance from the child learning the language from you other than to not swear yourself. Now, if it's learning the colorful language from someone other than yourself, that is outside of your control. – Emoire Sep 26 '11 at 18:45
Lastly, even if the question was posed in a way to reduce the chance (not complete avoidance), the only answer is still to try not to swear in front of your child. Outside of that, your ability to actually prevent your child from swearing is actually... well, a childish demand. – Emoire Sep 26 '11 at 18:46
Updated comment to be clear I was only answering one question. – Emoire Sep 26 '11 at 18:48

Swearing is a behavior, not a vocabulary.

Reason I say this is because simply not using the words or exchanging them with "innocent words" is not going to change the manner and tone you respond to an event.

My experience is that kids learn the behavior, even if the words are replaced with "innocent words".

The good news is that at least in some cases that kids are smart enough to know not to use them.

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I have come at this late, but I have to say that I have no difficulty separating out my behaviour with the band on tour (swearing may be quite common :-) and at home with the family (I don't swear at all)

It never required any great effort, just an understanding of environment - I wouldn't swear at all in my day job either. Aligning behaviour to environment can make this very easy.

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I have always sworn mild to moderate...I was going to really stop. But they grew smarter than I realized and at some 3 to 5 years old they probably threw a few words out...I made no comment. When it seemed like they could understand , I explained maybe 10 times each that they were not invited to speak like that until they were 18. I went on to tell them examples of how STUPID kids sound swearing with their little friends when overheard by others . I encouraged them to think about being embarrassed by behavior that other people might judge them to be weird or unacceptable. It didn't matter to me I told them because I'm not the one they're judging. I really kind of left it up to them to decide, Anyway....that is hard to explain to adults but kids get it.

I was out of town on my oldest daughters birthday. I called to wish her a happy birthday, and she let out with all the swear words she could rattle off when she started laughing at the fact I had forgotten the big privdglege of swearing when she turned 18. In fact, I have a picture of her in a birthday hat and sign with all the words she used!

I have raised 3 others with the same deal and none of them really questioned it...and none of them talk like I

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If it is not OK for your child to do it, why in the world would it be OK for you to do it? You set a double standard that will ultimately result in the child doing what you do. It is the same for smoking/drinking/yelling/abusing/over eating. If you do these things, it is a good bet that your child will as well. If you don't want them to do it, then you need to stop. Too many parents these days are too selfish to truly make the changes in their own lives that will in turn benefit the lives of their children. To be a truly great parent it requires lots of sacrifice... be it time/money/desires/habits. If you want to be a great parent, you need to be willing for the sake of your child to give things up. The key word is willing. If it is not given up willingly, then you will never stick with it.

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I especially agree with your first sentence, and most of the rest. But - it reads more like a comment than an answer. Could you edit your answer to emphasize your recommendation on the "how"? – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Sep 25 '11 at 9:57
Seriously? Is it OK for your kid to drink? to drive? to have sex? to stay up until midnight? get pierced? get tattooed? Shall I keep going? The world is full of double standards and things that are appropriate is some places and for some people that aren't appropriate for other places and people. Part of what we need to teach our children is that they control their behavior, and what other people do has little bearing on what they should be doing it or not doing. – tomjedrz Sep 25 '11 at 19:32
The "how" is stop doing it yourself if you don't want your kids to do it. That is the single best way to make sure your kids don't do something undesirable. Kids emulate most everything they see their parents do. If at some point later you don't care if your kids do it, then take it up again at that point, but if you want them to not do it then you shouldn't as well. Little children don't understand situational ethics. It is all or nothing for them. – Davin Studer Oct 11 '11 at 16:09

My mom swears all the time and I don't swear. There's a difference between swearing and being down right vulgar, which is if you made someone tried to run off that road, you flick them off and say "f u"; that's just swearing out of anger, being vulgar would be you being in the same situation and calling him a sexual term, which I don't think any kid should hear. I wouldn't change the way how you use your language around the kid, if you are not being vulgar, they are going to pick it up somewhere ,but I would make it clear to the little one that just because you do it, it is not OK for him to do it.

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People define "swearing" and "bad words" differently. It seems that you're okay with swearing but not with vulgarity. Personally, I'd like to avoid both, and I think the asker does, too. What's your advice in that case? – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Sep 25 '11 at 9:59
If you can help it then thats fine but to make such a big issue over it then no, the kids are going to hear it from other kids alot sooner then you think, you just have to teach them its not right... – Jeremy Love Sep 26 '11 at 15:31
Also if you change the way you are all the time instead of being yourself and teaching them then isnt that teaching them that your being fake? As a parent your kids should know who you are the good and sometimes the bad so they know they shouldn't make the same mistakes as you once did. Some things cant be helped, cursing most the time comes out of anger it is a form of expressing yourself, doesnt mean its right but it is what it is. Im not saying its ok for you to smoke then tell your child not to do it, thats a whole other issue, but something as little as this is easily corrected in 2 ways – Jeremy Love Sep 26 '11 at 15:40

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