“ Amma, Arvind just said the F word at Sudha today!” “Appa, Sudhir said the F word to me today.” “Amma, what does the F word mean? Sam says it’s a really bad word and his amma gets very angry when he says it!”
Shocking when you hear this the first time right? Would it shock you more to know that this is a normal part of development and childhood? If so, then how can you handle the situation when you hear your child use this foul language?
Why do children use ‘bad’ language?
There are many situations when children use swear words. One, out of curiosity, where they are testing out the reactions it may bring out, and two, when a child may use negative language to express their anger, and frustration. It is important to differentiate between these two situations, as In each of these situations, the need of the child and hence our responses will be different. In this article we will explore the first point of curiosity, and in our article next week we will address the second point.
The F word or any other ‘bad’ word, not uncommonly used by adults, is taboo from the lips of our innocent children. No matter what their age, we are stunned.
When children hear swear words for the first time they have no pre-set understanding of the words. They may pick it up from an adult, older sibling, other children in school, other social settings, or from some form of media.
Like any other new vocabulary, what comes up for the child is curiosity, a need to explore and make meaning. We need to keep the curiosity alive and not shut it down, however uncomfortable we may feel, as this will apply in other situations as well. Since we cannot choose what they will get curious about, we need to ensure that we nurture even this curiosity with openness and trust. Children may use swear words because they see that the response they get ranges from shock to anger. More than the emotion behind the response, they sense that there is some power in that word which triggers such a reaction, and they are inquisitive about that.
What can parents say?
In response, we could ask very naturally, “Where did you hear it? What do you think it means? Does it sound like a proper word to use?” We could give its meaning as well, like we would do for any other word. This kind of feedback works well on two counts. Firstly, it takes the power away from the word, and it loses its attraction to a large extent which means that they may not use it over and over just to get a reaction from us. Secondly, they realise that they can come and talk to us about anything without fear and judgement which is crucial as they are growing up, as it keeps the channels of communication open. Now, when a child’s natural curiosity is not addressed, if we try to distract or shut it down, they will find whatever means possible to satisfy it. So may turn to their peers or others and end up with false information, or they may continue to bring this up to get the reaction, use the ‘power’, and try to understand the meaning.
When my 6 year old first asked me the meaning of the ‘F word’, I was so stunned! I reverted to a response I use when I am confused as to how to answer. I told him, ‘ Hey, that’s something I need to think about explaining to you in a way that you understand. Will you give me a day to think about it? You can think of other words you want to know the meaning of as well.’ He knew that I would get back to him as promised, so he was cooperative. Responding to him honestly in this manner, helped keep his trust in me and our connection.
Many of us may be uncomfortable, and find it inappropriate to share the meanings of some of these words. So, just as we give them any information appropriate for their age, we can share that this is what people say when they are very frustrated or angry and don’t know how to express themselves better. We could even use humour, and say that they haven’t learnt better words yet! We can also point out that it is mean and hurtful to the other person. Then, we can ask them for alternate ways in which frustration, and rage can be expressed.
Some of us can choose to also clearly say, “In our family we do not use that word as a rule. We may hear others say it, but we don’t. Let’s find other words and ways to express our displeasure.” Here, it is important to remember that if we do not want a certain kind of language to be spoken by our children, it is our responsibility as the adult to role model that also.
Finally, acknowledging that this is a very natural and expected part of growing up, can help prepare ourselves for this situation. We can address this very normal curiosity in a way that does not shame the child. Rather than treating these conversations as something to be embarrassed about, if we are open, honest and forthcoming, it can be incredibly empowering for both parent and child.
Author: Seemanthini Iyer is a certified parent educator with Parenting Matters, an organization which empowers parents to build deeper connection in families.