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She Said What?!?

Understanding and Solving Problems With Backtalk and Cursing

She was the picture of innocence. An angelic blue-eyed blonde with a big bow in her hair.

That was until she met up with a noncompliant computer during her kindergarten’s computer lab.

“Oh, $#&@!” she blurted out.

The para-professional who was monitoring the computer lab was so taken by surprise that she had to turn her back to disguise the laughter she couldn’t suppress.

But cursing in the classroom is a serious matter and, hence, I received my first-ever call from the principal’s office.

“She said WHAT?!” I replied.

Where on earth had she heard that word? Definitely not from me…it must have been her father...

We took the matter seriously, had a long discussion about appropriate and inappropriate words and issued two punishments. First, there would be no television or computer games for one week. Second, she had to write a letter of apology to her teacher and para-pro along with writing “I will not say bad words” 20 times.

What’s a Parent To Do?

If parents “don’t correct this the first time it happens, then you have 6-year-olds humiliating their mom at a grocery store, 4-year-olds ignoring their father’s pleadings and 15-year-old girls refusing to talk to their mom,” says Harry H. Harrison, Jr., author of Father to Son, Life Lessons on Raising a Boy, Father to Daughter, Life Lessons on Raising a Girl and a seven-book “1001” series. “The most important thing to remember is to nip backtalk or cursing in the bud immediately, the first time.”

Harrison suggests parents make their displeasure at the behavior exceedingly clear. “Slam your fist on the table and say in a stern voice, ‘You will never talk to me this way again. Ever! Do you understand me?’”

Laura A. Gray, an attorney and founder of Socratic Parenting LLC ( says that the best discipline a parent can employ is self-discipline. “We discipline ourselves and disciple our children. It is never appropriate to slap, strike, spank or wash a child’s mouth out with soap for talking back or swearing,” she says. “Instead, parents need to remain calm and encourage clear, appropriate communication.”

Gray suggests the following parental response: “I feel very disrespected by the way you just talked to me/the words you just said. You must be feeling very angry/hurt/disappointed. What can I do to help?”

Ali Iorio, M.Ed., president of Champion Parenting, Inc. (, recommends the following approach to bad language or backtalking:

1. Make sure to have established rules in the home that everyone is to follow. (Example: No bad language will be used.)

2. If bad language or backtalk is used, then consequences will be issued.

3. First time, a warning, followed by removal of the most important activity the child enjoys.

Iorio says that the entire family must obey and participate in the family rules for them to be effective.

Why They Do It

There are several reasons why children curse or talk back, according to Jennie Aguirre, a teacher and certified life coach. “Children are wonderful observers and horrible interpreters, meaning a child may be exposed to this kind of language in their home and, if this has been modeled, it is possible that a young child may not understand the social implications of using profanity at school.”

Behavior has two functions, she says, to avoid something or to gain something. “So context is key when trying to understand why the child chose to say what they did, when they did.” She suggests that parents seek to establish the context and then have a conversation with the child about the use of words that are appropriate and inappropriate.

“Backtalk and bad language are two things most children will try out,” says Iorio. “Why? They are either hanging out with children who are doing it or they hear it from you, the parent, or older children.”

Judy Gruen, a mother of four and author of four books and a tip sheet entitled 13 Ways To Keep Young Kids From Swearing (downloadable at, says parents should consider whether the cursing or backtalk is a cry for attention. If that turns out to be the case, she suggests parents make an effort to give kids positive attention so they won’t resort to getting it in a negative way.

What Behavior Are You Modeling?

Just like my first inclination to blame my husband for our daughter’s use of an expletive at school, parents need to consider whether they are a contributing factor.

“Kids model the behavior they see and repeat the language they hear,” says Gruen. If parents are speaking this way and have foul-mouthed TV shows, movies or music as part of the backdrop of the family atmosphere, they can’t expect their young kids not to mimic it. “Our society has become so used to profanity that suddenly, parents seem surprised when they hear it popping from the mouths of babes,” she say. She believes the answer is for parents to be more careful and sensitive with how they talk and what media influences they allow in the home.

“My husband and I sometimes swear like drunken sailors with each other and our friends,” says Gray, “but we choose not to use profanity in front of our 10-year-old daughter or in front of my own parents, for that matter.”

Gray recalls a time when her then 5-year-old daughter heard a friend say that another person was “so damn dumb.” The daughter was horrified that he’d used the “d” word, but not the one you’d think. The use of “dumb” is what bothered her daughter. “The other four-letter ‘d’ word didn’t even register with her.”

She suggests parents forget the old “do as I say, not as I do” approach and model the kind of respectful communication they desire, not only with their children, but with their partner and other adults.

Strategies Worth Considering

Jennie Aguirre suggests the following steps to get to the bottom of the intention behind your child’s inappropriate use of words.

• Start with the feeling that motivated the profanity. Ask what they were feeling before they used the expletive. Feelings drive behavior. In order to understand what the action is (what is observable), you need to get at what is behind the behavior.

• Next explore the thoughts that created the feeling. Every feeling has a thought behind it. So if the child told you his feeling was anger, a good question might be, “What were you thinking that made you feel angry?”

• Ask more questions. Explore why they decided to use those words. You can have this conversation with a 4-year-old or 15-year-old. Ask, “What is it about ‘those words?’” Ask them what other words they could choose next time.

• Help the child develop a strategy for the behavior. In most cases, profanity is a result of angry feelings and anger is just the mask we wear when we are actually sad, embarrassed, hurt or scared. Develop a plan for the next time they are thinking “X,” feeling “Y” and saying “Z.” Suggest alternatives such as walking away, counting to 10, asking for time out or writing in a journal.

• Finally, whenever we say anything, it is our intention to be heard. The same goes for our children so, as unpleasant as this reality may be, allow them the space to explain why they used these words. In turn, choose words that convey safety, support and understanding when having this conversation.

Karin Calloway is the editor of Augusta Family Magazine. She and her husband, Bond, live in Evans. They have two children in college.


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