Out of the mouths of babes: what do you do when your child starts swearing?

The singer Pink has said she found it cute when her three-year-old blurted out the F-word. But how do other parents cope with their potty-mouthed offspring? (Warning: contains swearing)

What do you do if your child swears? I have been wondering about this recently, and then yesterday Pink came along and told Ellen De Generes a helpful story about her own daughter, Willow, who is three. “I was getting ready to go out on stage and she ran in … and said: ‘I’m fucking here!’ And I was like: ‘I’m sorry, I can’t. My ears don’t hear what you’re saying.’”

There is something comically wrong about the ability of such sweet faces to deliver such adult words. Pink said she found Willow’s swearing “cute”. Three was also the age of the toddler who swore in her ice bucket challenge (it’s on YouTube). But before you know it, your three-year-old is six, and the same words in the mouth of a six-year-old sound much less innocent.

A few weeks ago, my parents came to visit. We were enjoying lunch when my six-year-old daughter piped up: “Can someone pass me the fuckin’ butter?”

In many ways correct. A decent adjectival use of the word (though she could have said “please”).

There was silence around the table. Amazingly, my parents gave no sign of having heard. Did they not hear? Or, having heard, were they doing a “Pink”? My masterstroke in dealing with this was never to ask (though I guess I will find out now). While everyone else carried on eating, my daughter and I looked at each other. She read in my eyes that I had heard. I saw in hers the pleasure of having got away with it. The look lasted several moments, in which I did my best to stop my eyes from saying: “What the fuck do I do now?”

Later, I didn’t mention the butter. I didn’t ask, as parents do, where she had heard such language (the ice bucket toddler, apparently, heard hers “in town”). I already knew she had got it from me.

Some days after, it came to my attention that in a single play date she had managed to say “fuck” three times. I grounded her for a week, and now we are both giving up swearing. Team effort.

I don’t know about Pink, but I think failure to hear can work as a response only for a while. Apparently, not making a fuss about bad language deters children from using it. But I don’t understand how the distinction is made between bad language that entails no comment and good language. Sooner or later, everyone has to know whether swearing is acceptable or not. I have heard some people talk of a parental voice of unimpeachable neutrality and authority, in which it is possible to discourage certain behaviours while letting your child know that, emotionally, you are entirely uninterested in the subject, in order to disincentivise transgression. Perhaps someone with this gift could record a short anti-swearing message and post it below. These days, I limit myself to a few “bloodies”, usually followed by the words: “Oh, and by the way, that’s something only I am allowed to say.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Paula Cocozza, for The Guardian on Tuesday 14th October 2014 17.50 Europe/London

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