Q: I have a 10-year-old son and an almost 3-year-old daughter who has started repeating some of the phrases she hears her brother saying (like "butt" or "shut up"). I am not sure whether she knows what the words mean or not, but it is a little embarrassing when she says one of them in public. What can I do to help her (and her older brother) understand why some words aren't okay to say?
A: This reminds me of the time I was driving with my 3-year-old daughter in one of Washington, DC’s notorious rush hour back-ups. All of a sudden, I hear from the backseat: “This damn traffic!” So sometimes it’s not just older siblings who slip up with their language…it can be grown-ups, too. (Guilty as charged!)
The first line of defense is prevention—helping your older child learn to watch what he says around your little one. Start by helping him see how important he is to your daughter. She wants to be just like him, so she spends a lot of time watching and imitating him, including how he talks. Explain to your son that this means he has an important job to do—modeling appropriate language for his sister.
Then sit down with your children and develop some “family rules” about words. Let them know it is okay to be angry or frustrated, but that it’s not okay to use hurtful or inappropriate, rude words like “shut up” or calling someone a “butt”. Then brainstorm with them words they can use to express themselves. The more they are part of the solution, the more likely it is that they will comply.
As for what to do when, despite all your efforts, your daughter calls her cousin a poopy-face? First, remember that children crave our attention. Even “negative” attention is rewarding. They are making decisions everyday about what to do (or not do) based on the feedback they get from us. And a big reaction tells them, “This worked great. I’ll have to try that one again!” The more matter of fact and unemotional your response, the less rewarding it is to your child, which means it is less likely she will use the inappropriate word again. So tell your daughter in a serious, calm voice: “It is not okay to call people names. It hurts your cousin’s feelings.” Then help her express herself in more acceptable ways. For example, you might say: “I hear how angry you are that Judith took your doll. Let’s ask her to return it so you can finish feeding her the bottle.” Make it clear that, while it’s okay to be angry, it’s not okay to use bad language.
Remember that 2-year-olds (and even 10-year-olds) are still learning about impulse control, so there are bound to be slip-ups occasionally. But with a calm and consistent response from you, they will learn to “get with the program” over time.