What the #$^@ can I do about my kids swearing?

Picture this. An angelic, almost-three-year-old, playing with his duplo fire engine in the garden on a sunny autumn morning.

He’s muttering something like “better put out the fire!”, something else about a hose and Fireman Sam. And then louder than anything else… “I’m not fucking around!”

We stop what we are doing. Quickly check no one is shooting us a horrified or judgemental glare from the public walkway that runs along the other side of our garden wall. Pardon?

He smiles angelically. “Put out the fire, Mum.”


There have been four or five times when the fact my son has dropped a swear word has been unavoidable.

A dozen or so other times, I’ve been able to tell myself that he said ship! Or far! But there are limits to deliberate ignorance.

For not even quite three, he has a surprisingly colourful vocabulary.


I’ve been trying to determine how much of the blame should fall on me.

I don’t really swear a lot … except when I’m really frustrated (a decent amount of the time at the moment), stressed (a lot of the time) or tired (almost all the time). But I never swear at him and I never really thought he was paying that much attention, anywqay. He doesn’t listen to anything else I say, why would he soak up the obscenities?

But I think where I really went wrong is that I have found it kind of funny.

The first time he dropped something and said “shit!”, I laughed. I quickly realised my mistake and tried to hide it but he noticed and did it again. And again.

Then, a few months later, he walked into the kitchen and said “this is a fucking mess”. He was right of course but it was such a surprise to hear it coming from his mouth that I dropped what I was doing and demanded: “What?”

That was obviously the reaction he was after because he did the same thing about an hour later.


I must admit that I am probably not as bothered about any of this as I should be.

It’s not ideal that my son is starting to have a vocabulary to match some of the saltier people I’ve ever worked with in expletive-ridden newsrooms. But he’s still at the stage where there is no real intent behind the words. He doesn’t know what they mean – or that people might be offended. Or even probably what being offended is.


Of all the weird social concepts that I’ve had (or will have) to explain to the kids, the idea that some words are “bad” is one of the more difficult ones for me. How do you explain that when you put those letters in that sequence, someone might take offence – but say them backwards, for example, and it’s fine?

I figure it’s the intent of the words that matters – I’d much rather he was being silly and experimenting with words, not knowing what he is saying, than using words he does understand to convey something deliberately hurtful.  That’s quite apart from the studies recently that have shown swearing helps pain tolerance and that those with a colourful vocabulary tend to be more intelligent and honest. In a few years’ time, when he’s got to grips with the concept, he might need the odd profanity to release pressure.

But equally, I don’t really want to set him up for trouble. I’m not sure “but my mum doesn’t mind” is going to be an excuse that flies when he’s at school.

I’m settling on a strategy of treating swear words like any other words – not laughing, not telling him off when he uses them but gently reminding that some people don’t like those words – and with so many others available to us, why don’t we try to find another one?  Or at the very least, save those words for when there’s no one else around. Sometimes Dad and I will probably need to join in.



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