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July 24, 2024

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How to Handle a Potty Mouth

The first time you hear your young child cuss will blow your mind — but you can nip it in the bud fast! Local parents weigh in with their strategies.


When a little one calls someone a “Doo-Doo Butt” or a “Pee-Pee Pants,” she usually gets one of two reactions: anger or laughter. Both are forms of attention that keep potty mouths chattering fast and furious. When it comes to childhood swearing, your reaction takes on a whole new level.

Around age 4 is when your child might say his first swear word.

"Even if they don't know what it means, preschoolers understand that these words are emotionally charged," says Timothy Jay, Ph.D., author of What to Do When Kids Talk Dirty.

"They enjoy using four-letter words, and they love to watch your expression when they say them," reports the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). "They use these words more to get a response out of you than for any other reason, so don't overreact to them."

When he does start to say cuss words, be ready to curb the fascination with them. The solution, says Christye M. of Mt. Juliet, is to ignore it completely.

“I’d act like I never heard a thing,” Christye says. “My kids would repeat themselves a few times because they got big reactions from their friends or from the teacher. But if I refused to look at them or acknowledge them in any way at all, the potty talk would die down within a week or two. And really, they hated being ignored more than any punishment I could hand down. Lack of attention is even worse than negative attention. It works!”

Be Consistent with Discipline

“Potty talk belongs in the bathroom,” declares mom of two Paula N. of Franklin.

That’s why she instituted a Toilet Time Out with her twins. “You can say all the potty words you like … if you’re in the bathroom with the door closed. And if you say them anywhere else, you’ll spend a few minutes of silent time in the bathroom by yourself. A commode makes a wonderful time out chair.”

It’s not all negative. Having a designated place to get all those words out of their systems where no one is laughing is a great way to make the words boring and less attractive. Try your best to stay consistent with whatever discipline you set, too.

Watch What You Say, Of Course

“I hate to admit it, but my kids learned the word ‘butt’ from me,” confesses James S. of Murfreesboro. “It didn’t sound so funny coming out of their little mouths, though.”

To cure himself and his kids of their problem, James came up with the Take Five bad word penalty system. For every dirty word the kids say, they lose five minutes from their free time before bed.

“That one worked fast because they miss the ends of their TV shows or wind up going to bed half an hour early,” he says.

If James slips up, he has to add five minutes to his morning run (about half a mile).

“I tell you what, I got into good shape and cleaned up my vocabulary at the same time!” James says.

If foul language continues to be an issue with your child, make sure you and other adults around him are modeling good behavior with your own words. Clinical Child Psychologist Edward Christophersen, Ph.D., acknowledges that parents sometimes end up cursing, but don't sweat it. "Briefly acknowledge your slip — 'I should not have used that word.' — and carry on as if it didn't happen," he says.

It's Been Around & Not Going Anywhere

Bathroom humor has been around forever. It’s in Shakespeare’s plays, on Saturday Night Live and, of course, in every joke book ever written. It also pops up in your child's favorite YouTube videos. Most videos geared toward kids are free of swear words, but some are known to accidentally slip one or two in. Why? Because it’s funny.

If your little man has a great sense of humor and is looking for a big reaction, try helping him swap the potty talk for other hilarious phrases that are less offensive. He’ll get the same guffaw from friends and family, but won’t get the evil eye from teachers and parents.

Mother of four Jennifer L. of Nolensville says, “We’ve been down this road four times. If I had a dime for every time I heard one of my kids say ‘Poopy-Head’ I’d be a millionaire. We tell them that it’s a get-in-trouble word, and they are welcome to make up words like ‘Popsicle Face’ or ‘Banana Brain.’ Now they crack each other up by inventing ridiculous insults that are definitely weird … but not vulgar.”


1. Make sure children have plenty of positive ways to get attention and power.

2. Teach younger kids the appropriate names for body parts, and use them conversationally to remove the excitement of using those words.

3. Monitor your child's media habits — TV, video, music lyrics, Internet and social media usage. Kids see and hear a lot more than their parents did growing up. If you don't like the media your child is consuming, have a candid conversation about it. Don't be afraid to deem shows, movies, etc., off-limits in your house. 

4. Don’t overreact. Children use foul language to get a rise out of you. If you don't get upset, it takes the power away from them.

5. Be clear about what words are OK and not OK in your family.

6. If you have older kids who are swearing, find out where it's coming from. Are they trying to fit in or act cool around their friends? Are they struggling to express anger appropriately? 

7. Walk away from the situation. You can't really force a child to stop using potty talk or stop swearing. Let your child know that if he uses foul and/or disrespectful language then you will turn around and walk away without responding. This removes the "payoff" for the behavior. 

8. Consequences. This is a big question for parents. Educational Psychologist and Author Michele Borba, Ed.D., suggests having the child look up a new, more appropriate word in the dictionary to replace the offensive one. Ask your child to use the new word throughout the day in conversation or write it down and teach it to the rest of the family.

9. Encourage your child when you see him making any amount of progress in the positive direction. When your youngster uses appropriate terms for body parts or making jokes (instead of foul words) to get attention, make a point to praise him for his "grown-up" ways.

10. Watch your own language, of course. Speak respectfully to your child and to your partner, modeling appropriate, acceptable language. Children are well aware of double standards. If it's OK for you to swear, it won't make sense to them that it's not OK for them.

Source: Positive Parenting Solutions

About the Author

Deborah Bohn

Deborah Bohn is a mother and freelance writer.