Potty talk: curbing bad language in toddlers

If you listen closely to the words pre-schoolers use, you'll find that their vocabulary is not as innocent as we might hope. Their conversations are peppered with aggressive phrases. Some are simple adult curses. Others, such as 'poo-poo head', are unique to young children.

Children learn the meanings of most words from the context in which they're used. That's why a toddler may ask for 'milk' when they want something else to drink. For them, 'milk' is simply the word associated with drinking. They have derived the meaning of that word from what happens when they say it.

Tools for getting attention

Your child understands the power of words – especially certain words – even if she doesn't quite know their meaning.

Dr. Timothy B. Jay, a professor of psychology at North Adams State College in Massachusetts, has been studying the patterns of swearing and other forms of aggressive language among children. He's found that here, as in other areas of verbal development, girls take the lead. On average, three – and four-year-old girls know 23 aggressive phrases and swear words, compared with only 17 for the boys.

It's important to understand not only why children speak this way, but also how their interpretations of these words are often quite different from ours.

Strong words, strong emotions

A three-year-old may use 'potty language' to tease a play-mate. She's not being literal, of course. Instead, it's a way for her to own her recent mastery of toilet training or even her current struggle with it. These are years of intense emotions. One of the challenges facing pre-schoolers is learning to keep their emotions under greater control. By calling someone else such a name, a child can send the message that she's not scared. Once again, the language of the child reflects the developmental issues that dominate her own life.

It's everywhere

It's highly unlikely that you'll be able to protect your children from hearing foul language. It's all around them in nursery school, in the playground and on television, even if those words are never uttered at home. The real challenge is to help children learn when using such language is socially appropriate and to help them master the verbal skills they'll need to express themselves more effectively without using such language.

Helpful hints

Here's what you can do:

  • Ignore them Most of the time, young children who swear or use foul language repeatedly are doing so because of the extra attention it gets them. Ignoring their behaviour usually causes them to move on to something else. It simply isn't as much fun if adults don't make a fuss over it.

  • Suggest an alternative Teach alternative phrases ('Darn it!') to your children. Simply telling a child not to do something isn't as effective as offering a different but equally satisfying behaviour. Suggesting alternative phrases lets your child know that you're aware of her strong emotions and gives her a way to express those emotions in a more acceptable fashion.

  • Try to clean up your own act Your children take many cues from you about what language is suitable in different situations. You can't expect a pre-schooler who's been encouraged to learn new words and to express herself clearly not to use the emotion-laden phrases she hears coming out of your mouth.

It's important not only to understand why children use ‘bad' words in their first years of development, but also what their interpretations of these words might be.

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