Choice Words

How to keep your one verbal slip-up from becoming Junior’s bad-word habit.

Any good words of advice for stopping bad words from a 3-year-old? The problem is just starting, and I don’t want it to become a habit.

Notice how kids are immediately fascinated with words we want them to have no interest in? You could spout fine words like “muse” and “visage” 50 times a week, and maybe Webster will finally use one in a sentence on the day he leaves for college. But let one little expletive squirt through your lips as a rock-frozen turkey dives from the freezer onto your little toe and, like a heat-seeking missile, he’ll lock in on your epithet and instantly make it an integral part of his vocabulary.

What makes children so quickly embrace taboo words? A couple of explanations. One, usually we pair such words with some kind of emotion. The more intense the emotion, the more memorable the word for little ears. Two, kids have an uncanny feel for what they’re not supposed to say. Or do, for that matter. An earthy word is a verbal forbidden fruit. It’s emotionally tasty, even though initially Chastity may have no inkling of its meaning. She just senses it’s a good one.

How can you tone down the tingle of exciting language? One reaction is no reaction. Echo most likely is merely mimicking something she’s heard (you really must get your spouse to watch his language); therefore, if you let the word slip by “unnoticed,” it probably will fade away. Granted, this is easier to do at some times and places than others. Bad language can be ignored with impunity when just you and Echo are alone in the kitchen. The situation is far more delicate during the Sunday liturgy. Fortunately, most of the time you can ignore nasty words without complications.

Ignorance is blissfully effective under one condition: scarcity. Kids aren’t likely to abandon hot talk if the source that’s fueling it isn’t capped.

In the majority of cases where the words aren’t yet a habit, practicing oblivion solves the problem. If your case is in the minority — and doesn’t it always seem like it? — you may have to take a more active stance. Begin with some explanation like, “(Word) is not a nice word to use. We don’t use that word around here. From now on when you do, you’re going to have to sit.” Wherever — on the steps, floor, couch, potty-language chair. Then, without fanfare, make it happen. “That’s not a good word” should be plenty of explanation prior to sitting spells.

Of course, savvy kids will instantly ask, “How come you use it?” You could respond with the old “Because I’m big and you’re little.” But I don’t think you’d want to use size or age as a standard for conduct. Better to say, “I’m going to try not to say it, either.” You could even punish yourself when you do. Send yourself to your room. Take a nap for half an hour. Or sit on a chair — feet up, shoes off and eyes closed. As long as the kids think it’s punishment, that’s what counts.

You could provide substitutes. (Nuts! Shoot! Rats!) Substitutes are socially benign, though a child doesn’t know that. Is this shady parental trickery? Sure. But there’s nothing wrong with a little child-rearing cleverness. The chance doesn’t arise often, and it helps us feel smarter than the kids, if only temporarily.

One mother shared a particularly resourceful solution: While riding in the car, her 3-year-old daughter began to spew an offensive word in rapid-fire repetition. Apparently she liked the onomatopoetic effect. Now there’s a word kids don’t use much. Mom was torn between two urges — to stop her daughter and to pay no attention. From creativity borne of desperation, Mom said, “You know, you can only use that word so many times before you use it all up. You better save some, because you could need them later, and then you won’t have any.”

Daughter must have bought this because she shut down her word assembly line and never said it again. Great parenting under fire, with just one potential snare. I wouldn’t want to be around when Daughter realizes the “limit” explanation was a story. Who knows, though — maybe by then she’ll have more mature ways to express herself.

The doctor is always in