Positive Relationships: Behaviour - when children swear

Jennie Lindon
Monday, September 5, 2011

How to react tactfully to an innocent child's use of rude words or phrases can be a tricky issue for early years practitioners. Jennie Lindon has advice for talking to both children and parents.

Q: 'A brother (3 years 6 months) and sister (2 years 2 months) joined our pre-school recently and both of them swear. From what we have observed, the little boy knows he shouldn't be saying these words, his sister is simply mimicking him and his mother doesn't show any concern about their behaviour. How should we respond?'

A: Babies are naturally social; they take an alert interest in the world around them. Their brains are well attuned to the sounds of the human voice and they are poised to learn spoken language as the months pass.

Young children learn their words and ways of speaking from what they hear. However, older babies and young toddlers do not have a filter for 'rude' words. They are great imitators and they especially notice words or phrases said with great feeling by familiar adults, or other children.

We are charmed when a two-year-old has a go at 'whoops-a-daisy'. We smile quietly when a grown-up phrase, like 'I can't be having this!' comes out of the mouth of a three-year-old. It is a different matter, though, when young children bring the habit of swearing into your early years setting.

Children extend their vocabulary from direct experience. So, they cannot produce swear words, or any other kind of offensive language, unless someone has said the word or phrase in their hearing. One of the main sources will be people they know, and young children usually need to hear a word more than once before they will imitate it. However, it is also possible that children could hear bad language from people they do not know well, but who are swearing on the street or in a shop.


It is important to view swearing as something that young children can learn - a habit like any other. At the outset, a child cannot know that this word or phrase counts as swearing. They start to realise that some words are different from the rest, because of the reaction they get from adults.

Some young children realise that a phrase is unacceptable. Perhaps there is a silence and a long stare from a familiar adult - which should be followed by a brief explanation. Some children will follow the guidance of a familiar adult, because they do not want to disappoint them.

Perhaps there is nervous laughter from adults and, 'Did you hear what he said!' Maybe there is a reaction of outrage. Some children may find this response daunting and stop. Others will be delighted that they can provoke such drama among the grown-ups and seek to do it again.

Some young children have no idea that they are swearing, until they join early years provision. They live in a home or neighbourhood where these words count as normal language and adults scarcely notice. I have heard practitioners' accounts of how a parent's reaction to a conversation about their child's swear words was, 'I don't know where he ***** hears it!'

Even so, young children have the capacity to learn that their nursery or childminder takes a different view from that of their parents. As with other habits of behaviour, young children manage, up to a point, to follow the different ground rules between familiar settings.


There are parallels between a family home where swearing is unacceptable, and early years provision facing different views from a range of families.

If children bring rude words into their home from elsewhere, then someone from their family will probably say, 'That is a rude word' or 'We don't use that word here'. The child may simply accept the statement and not repeat the swear word. Some may ask, 'Why?' or add, 'But I heard a grown-up say it.'

Like parents, early years practitioners need to be ready with a simple explanation whenever possible. You might say, 'That's a rude word. I'd rather we said "poo".' Given the origin of some swear words, you might decide with young children to limit your comment to, 'It's just rude.' You can still offer an alternative such as, 'If you stub your toe, it's much better to say ...' Children are more likely to imitate an alternative word or phrase that they hear you say in times of stress or frustration.

Alert observation needs to inform the details of how the key person, and other practitioners, react to young children who swear.

  • Has this young child said a swear word as a one-off? The incident may be better ignored. Or you rephrase what the child has just said. Replace, 'What a ***** big beetle' with 'That is one enormous beetle. Hey! Olivia's found a giant beetle!'.
  • Perhaps a friendly chat with the parents will help them to realise that children are listening, even when apparently busy doing something else. You are confident that these parents will watch their language from now on.
  • Ignoring incidents is unlikely to be effective when children have learned a swearing habit. You need to communicate disapproval of what the child has said. It may be a look or comment that says, 'Try a different word.' Young children need to be confident that you like them, you just do not like hearing that word.
  • As with any habit you wish to discourage, it is wise to give much less attention to the swearing than to ways of talking that are welcome in pre-school.
  • Calm any drama around swearing. Maybe other children go, 'Ooh, that is such a bad word!' You need to acknowledge briefly, 'Yes, I know and I'm dealing with it'. A room team should develop a consistent approach, so that no practitioner effectively rewards a child who swears with a five-act drama of negative adult attention.


It looks as if these two young children have learned swear words within their family circle. Their mother is either one source of this vocabulary, or she has not challenged relatives or friends who swear in her children's hearing. Whatever the reason, the children's key person needs to have a private conversation with her and explain that swear words are unacceptable language in pre-school.

The key person should communicate to the mother that the next step should, ideally, be to devise a joint approach with the children's mother. Perhaps this parent genuinely thinks it is acceptable for her young children to swear. The key person can then explain that whatever happens at home, the pre-school team will address the swearing and here is how. Practitioners can show respect for families while explaining core values of the setting.

Alternatively, does this mother appear unconcerned out of embarrassment? Is she baffled over what to do, maybe hoping that her child's swearing is a 'phase' that will just pass? In this instance, the key person can share crucial basics about how children learn language or any habits of behaviour. The mother may welcome ideas of what to do. If she has trouble challenging other relatives or friends, she will be pleased to gain support from the pre-school and to realise that she is not making a fuss about nothing.

If you have a question that you'd like our experts to answer, then e-mail us at ruth.thomson@haymarket.com. Provide essential details of the problem, including relevant information such as the age of the child. Only published questions will be answered and the anonymity of the sender and the children will be protected.

Further reading

Guiding the Behaviour of Children and Young People: Linking Theory and Practice 0-18 Years by Jennie Lindon (Hodder Education) offers practical ideas for positive approaches to behaviour across childhood and adolescence. Key areas covered include theories, concepts and their application, behaviour choices within a social and cultural context, reflective practice, and co-operation and partnership between the grown-ups.

Parents as Partners - Positive Relationships in the Early Years by Jennie Lindon (Practical Pre-school Books) is divided into three sections - the meaning of partnership, relationships and communication, and different kinds of involvement - backed up with practical advice, points for reflection and case studies.

Understanding Behaviour and Development in Early Childhood: A Guide to Theory and Practice by Maria Robinson (Routledge) sets out the behaviour of babies and young children in a developmental context, appreciating the enormous shifts and changes they undergo. Themes include: what we understand by 'behaviour'; brain development; behaviour as a reflection of the child's internal state; and how emotions affect the ability to learn.

Helping with Behaviour by Sue Roffey (Essential Guides for Early Years Practitioners, Routledge/Nursery World) gives advice on how to develop a supportive environment in which all children can develop positive interactions with each other.

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