I took my 9 year old son to a little social gathering with some kids from different sporting activities. Some of the families attending this gathering come from a very "rough" background.

One of the boys about the age of my son was teaching his baby brother (around 3 years old) to say really rude words, like insults and cussing. The boys would then laugh and encourage him. I approached the toddler and tried to tell him he could learn better words, but he just replied with F... off.

The parents of the kids seem to not care about that situation, but I don't think it is a good example for my son.

How should I deal with rude cussing boys like that? Is the answer just to leave?

I don't want to show my son that the way to deal with rude people is just to ignore them and move away, but to learn a way to give him a higher thought reference.

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    Hi! Maybe approaching the toddler should've been the last option. First the parents, then the older kids. The toddler cannot be expected to understand the gravity of the words he was saying, plus he probably did not initiate it (i.e., "Hey, older brother, teach me to cuss!"). – iulia Sep 18 at 8:51
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    So you approached a child you didn't know and tried to dictate what words he should use based on your personal morality? Seems like his response was spot on to me. – user33177 Sep 18 at 22:02
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    just an aside from my childhood experience: by the age of nine, & assuming North American culture, your son probably already knows some swears and has similarly learned the inappropriateness of saying them around his parents. Both myself and my younger sibling had gained a handle on such language by ages six or seven, though didn't adapt to using them around parents until we were both ~16-17 - and in response to their frequent use of such language. To better address your question, opening the doors to questions of philosophy and language history such as other users here offer is probably best. – PowerLuser Sep 18 at 22:27
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    "I don't want to show my son that the way to deal with rude people is just to ignore them and move away, " he's gonna have a rough life then. – user32494 Sep 19 at 16:52
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    What you said to the toddler doesn't make any sense. What are better words? How was the toddler supposed to know? How do you know? – Steve Sep 19 at 20:54
up vote 92 down vote accepted

All you can do is teach your own child.

It is never too early to learn that not everyone believes the same stuff, or even agrees on good behaviour. Your son will already have learnt those words at school so don't worry to much on that front.

I would start with

"I am glad you weren't joining in with teaching that toddler those nasty words, that wasn't funny at all"

It honestly doesn't matter if he was or not at this stage, praise is always good

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    I'd suggest that if he has any curiosity about it, teach him all he wants to know about "Bad Words" and exactly why each is offensive to one person or another. Let him use SOME around the house if he likes, but teach him about the consequences of using such words in public. As with most things with kids if you take away the mystique and make it mundane they will lose interest and/or learn to use it. My brother did this with his kids, they would hear us cuss and apologize and tell us it's "Ok" they understood, but I have yet to hear them cuss themselves (they are now in their 30s) – Bill K Sep 18 at 17:33

To forewarn you, some of this is going to be my own views, and they seem to differ from yours.

Swearing isn't a problem by itself

If I stand in an empty room and shout obscenities and no one can hear, does it matter? No.

Offense is in the mind of the listener

If I say a word in your language which I don't understand, it is not offensive until you hear it and interpret it. Offense is a choice made by the listener to be offended.

Thus, offensive language is entirely context-dependent

The lesson to teach a child about swearing is that it is part of speaking for the benefit of those who are listening. So, we don't swear in front of young children because they won't understand that these are words that cause offense. We don't swear at teachers or parents unless we want to offend them and make them angry.

Not swearing is a reasonable choice if you don't know whether people will be offended or not

You can make it clear that you do not accept offensive language, and that you will assume they are trying to make you sad or angry if they swear in your presence. Further, you can point out that unless you know everyone in the room is fine with swearing, it is better not to swear because you might upset someone when you didn't mean to.

You can even suggest that the simplest thing is to never swear, then you don't have to worry about it.

A word is made of sounds

I have a real issue with just teaching children that all swearing is really bad. Swearing is just a bunch of sounds put together, and by themselves they are meaningless, not some sort of magical phrase. Further, it fails to teach children that the central point of language use is the context of the listener - that all language, the tone in which you say it, etc, is capable of causing joy or suffering in others, and that you have to think about the impact of what you're saying.

Frankly, swearing is the easiest way to learn that principle, so I would use it as an opportunity to teach them the concept rather than a rule they will become happy to break with their friends because it's forbidden.

Or, you know, teach them an over-simplified view of the world and wait for it to bite you when they're teenagers.

What to do in that social situation?

If you are in a situation where you feel your child is being influenced towards bad behaviour, then take them out of the situation. However, I would argue (given the above) that swearing itself isn't a particularly big problem, especially for a 9 year old who likely knows all the swear words anyway.

"Rough" children are not a problem, so avoid moving your son away from people just because of their social class. The problem is that you disapproved of their behaviour. However, in their context, it could be harmless (per the above discussion about context). That's why I've described my views on swearing, so that you can hopefully understand that you can explain why we don't use those words at home later. You don't need to be scared of your son hearing the words or even for the toddler. Nobody is harmed by hearing swear words. The key is for your son to learn the context, not for him to be shielded from some terrible utterance.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Joe Sep 19 at 15:52
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    I recommend you find sources for the very strong statements you've made in this post; while there is some basis for some of what you say, you're ignoring some pretty important details (such as cultural context, though you wave at it you ignore it in the last two paragraphs entirely). – Joe Sep 19 at 15:56
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    "If I stand in an empty room and shout obscenities and no one can hear, does it matter?" --> Yes it does, your mind either discharges the accumulated stress or you get even more angry with the situation. – CPHPython Sep 20 at 9:04
  • @CPHPython That situation would be 100% the same if he was shouting normal words.... its the shouting. The cursing has nothing to do with it really. (and getting angry by cursing is your own, maybe subcontious choice) – EpicKip Sep 24 at 12:45
  • "If one hand uses foul language in the forest and nobody hears..." – AJFaraday Sep 25 at 8:57

My oldest sister used to be a primary school teacher for very disadvantaged children in a very rough area. She saw it as part of her job to teach them to be - umm - less rough.

So often these children would curse like fishwives. If she said "We don't say that", they'd say, "But my dad always calls my mum that". So she learnt to say, "That's not nice. We don't say that HERE". Children have no problem accepting that there are places where one behaves differently.

*I never met a fishwife. This is a common UK metaphor.

  • What the heck is a fishwife, anyway? A sailor, maybe? – Ben Collins Sep 19 at 21:51
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    @BenCollins In the wild, a fishwife is a female selling fish at markets, often attracting her customers not by the fresh fish she displays but mostly by the astonishing vocabulary coming out of her mouth. – CPHPython Sep 20 at 9:21

Yes. The answer is to leave. You had no right to impose your morality on another child. If their words offended you, you could remove yourself. You could discuss with your own son what effect those words had on you and how you want him to act with respectful language when out in public. You could have a discussion with the organizers of the event and see if they are willing to make a policy against certain types of language.

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    Hi, welcome to the site. Your answer is a reasonable one, but I'd tone it down a bit; it sounds very aggressive, in particular the last sentence, and inappropriately so for an answer here (remember to be nice first and always). Thanks! – Joe Sep 19 at 2:55
  • Please remember: if you have a better answer, post it so it doesn't get lost in a sea of comments. – anongoodnurse Sep 21 at 23:41
  • Please note that you will be pinged with every comment under your answer; it isn't necessarily directed at you specifically. – anongoodnurse Sep 21 at 23:45
  • -1, the OP does not ask about imposing his morality on the other children, but how to achieve his parenting goals with his own child. "Removing yourself" is tough and can backfire massively if the child decides to stay. – AnoE Sep 25 at 19:01

At 9 years old, (assuming no developmental disabilities) is perfectly capable of understanding the concept of "cuss" words as well as the idea that not all people will believe the same or make the same choices as you might encourage your son to make.

The first thing you must identify is why you consider it inappropriate for your son to use crude, vulgar or profane language? This will inform how you go about approaching the remainder of the conversation with your son.

Examples of reasons why might include:

  • Such language is often viewed as offensive in "polite" society and you want your son to not become a pariah in your or his societal circles where parents might object to hearing him use this language around their own children.
    • Many people have religious objections to the use of such language. Perhaps you don't want him to swear because you believe that it will be seen as offensive to a deity?
    • This is worthy of a lengthy discussion in itself, but some people feel that learning to control one's temper including holding one's tongue is important for personal emotional and mental health. Therefore, you might be concerned about your son developing habits now that will result in struggles later in life with more serious issues regarding his conduct.

Whatever your reasons, you can pull your son aside and if as WendyG suggested, he has chosen not to participate, you should certainly praise his positive behavior. At this age with my daughter, I would ask her if she understood that the words being used were offensive and whether they were appropriate words for her to use. I would then ask her why / why not to see what her level of understanding was. If I could see that she didn't understand either why the words were offensive or why they were inappropriate for her to use I could then explain further on any points where she was unclear. Finally I would ask her if she had any questions about any of the words she heard. I have generally felt that if she could ask the question, she deserved an honest and open (though age-appropriate) answer.

With regard to the answer from Phil H. We had a slightly different situation, but my wife's siblings have both made life choices that go against the morals we have tried to instill in our daughter. As a result when she was much younger we frequently had to field questions about their life choices that she would observe and she would ask "why does aunt do x?". These were opportunities for us to talk to our daughter about how not everyone is taught the same standards or chooses to live them because they may not believe the same as we do. We always emphasized that the morals we were teaching were for her and NOT for her to apply to others who might not believe or live as we did and therefore she should be careful to not judge others because of they choose differently from us.

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    I would perhaps point out that while I understand your approach regarding 'our morals' and 'their morals', it is easy to essentially classify people in your own mind and thus classify them for your children. That is part of what is questionable about the scenario the Q describes - the need to take one's children away from the 'rough' kids and the terrible behaviour speaks mostly of social strata, not of any real behavioural lesson. – Phil H Sep 18 at 22:45
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    @PhilH, Not sure it's that clear-cut. Some of my siblings swear and use offensive terms on a daily basis. Others not nearly as much. But we're in the same social strata. I think it's also very much a problem of "empathy" (realizing that your swearing can/does offend), which some people have, others less so... – PatrickT Sep 19 at 18:06
  • @PatrickT But your siblings may be friends with people from other social strata, which has in turn influenced their views on swearing and their readiness to use it. (Note: stratum is the singular of strata.) It's not necessarily an issue of empathy, but one of belief - what people believe about swearing. In some places it's not considered offensive, it's thought of as just another means of expression, and to suggest that swearing is offensive would be deemed ridiculous. – Pharap Sep 20 at 21:20

The parents of the kids seem to not care about that situation, but I don't think it is a good example for my son.

Prepare your children so they learn from you rather than other people. Explain to your child(ren) what good behaviour is (you probably do this already) but also teach them about rude things.

That doesn't mean they have to learn all the curse words from you, but prepare them that such behaviour and those words exist and tell them your view on it. For example, tell them you don't want your children to act that way or use those words.

I don't want to show my son that the way to deal with rude people is just to ignore them and move away, but to learn a way to give him a higher thought reference.

That's why you talk to your child(ren). After they've attended an event with rude behaviour or cursing you can ask them how they felt about that and ask what they thought about that behaviour.

That talking stuff helps a lot with grown-ups too by the way. After meetings there's usually a feedback round. In the military they call it debriefing, from Wikipedia:

Another purpose of the military debriefing is to assess the individual and return him or her to regular duties as soon as possible.

Talking about these meta-like things on a regular basis builds trust. That's good in the long term because they are likely to come to you when they feel they have another problem of their own.

Attention is the equivalent of Kryptonite for kids!

Every kid is different, but what I learned from a child of a particularly close friend is that, kids do these things to get attention. It does not matter if the attention is positive (e.g. cuss words make other kids laugh, which is mentally rewarding), or negative (it upsets an adult, which can be mentally rewarding).

Ignore it! And if possible, remove your child from such presence. Because if your child figures cussing as an attention-bait, they will use it.

This is not to say to totally shun these kids. Just be prepared to exhibit your best poker face when something like that happens.

Your first mistake was to try to teach someone else's child your perspective when it wasn't your place. I am a foster parent, and I end up having to do this all the time (teach someone else's child my values) and I can tell you from experience, that it never goes smoothly. I have to do it because I am responsible for that child for a time, but you were in no way responsible for that toddler. You are however responsible for your child. So if you wanted to teach your child a lesson, like teaching a 3-year-old to cuss is a bad idea, then go for it. I would suggest that pull your child aside and explain your views. Why you think it's a bad idea. Answer their questions. Try to keep a 9-year-old perspective. And, then at the end give some other activities that you think would be better, instead of teaching the toddler to cuss.

Let me be clear here. If one if my kids told you to "F-off" you would find me very close in a matter of seconds, almost certainly repeating the sentiment, possibly even the words, and maybe even rewarding the child for standing up to you. Even if I thought the child was out of line with their language, that would be a lesser concern to me then another adult that was in a position for the child to tell to leave them alone. You did not have a position of authority (not a teacher, or coach). You are a stranger. Your not even a friends parent. Your just some random person trying to impose your views of the world (from the perspective of the toddler). The proper response to a stranger telling you to do anything is 100% "F-off" (though I would like to see better language). The toddler's reaction is correct and appropriate.

Back to your child though, that's your call. If you feel that he was acting poorly by teaching a toddler to cuss, or if you just don't want him to be exposed to that behavior, then that is your call. The best action you could do to teach your child that what he is doing is wrong is to explain the reason why to him in words that a 9-year-old can understand. I probably would not have interrupted myself, but instead had a conversation on the car ride home. I would have explained that cussing is something that can get you into trouble sometimes, and give examples of when it can get you into trouble, like cussing at teachers. Then explained how little children don't know how to tell, and how it's better not to teach them because they can't tell. Then, I might give another example if I still had their attention like, how it's OK for him to help microwave his own snacks because he is old enough to know how, but how it wasn't ok when he was three, because he didn't know how (you can come up with a better example from his own pool of experiences). That would likely be the end of the incident. Unless my child was running around making a point of teaching toddlers the F bomb, I would not find it that large an issue.

  • If I were the OP, I would read this answer carefully. This situation also happened to me, and whether you are on the right or on the wrong, nobody enjoys strangers bossing their kids around, and in fact it is none of their business. – Rui F Ribeiro Sep 23 at 20:51
  • While the answer is somewhat factually OK for my taste, it seems very aggressive to me. It begins right with "Your first mistake ..." and then elaborately tells OP that coteyr would be in his face right away (even worse than the ignorance of the parents at that event). For a reason that is clearly just a sidenote to the actual question (which clearly is about the interaction with OPs child). The answer would be much improved if the subtle and not so subtle ad-hominems against OP were gotten rid of, they are surely not necessary. – AnoE Sep 25 at 19:25
  • The question has been edited. It did have, as I read it when I posted this answer a more "What do I do with the toddler?" slant to it, and I wanted to make it's not the role of a random stranger to teaching some other child, not your own, anything. That said, I see your point, as the question stands now, but I intend to leave my answer. I think it's very important to consider that it's not OK to just walk up to some strange child and start imparting your worldviews. – coteyr Sep 25 at 19:37

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