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Swearing: My sweet child said what?

Little girl speaking
Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

We've all been there.

You're out as a family – or grandma has come to stay – and you've given the kids ‘the talk’ about behaviour and minding their proverbial Ps and Qs.

They are dressed up and look like angels.

Butter wouldn't melt in their mouths.

Their potty mouths.

But there it is. The clanger. Perhaps it’s an unexpected and orphaned F-Bomb. Or more often than parents realised the offending word is dropped with incredible contextual accuracy proving just how carefully our children listen and mimic what they hear.

Alternatively, the mortifying moment could take the form of a four-year-old calculating very loudly how many burgers the man at the table beside you must have eaten to get so very very fat. (The answer was five million hundred in case you were wondering).

From the mouths of babes.

For a moment, despite it being their indiscretion, it's all about you.

It's like the world stops. The room (or shopping centre or restaurant or theatre) seems to fall silent and just like a sitcom there is a collective gasp as everyone turns to look. At. You.

You're a terrible parent. What will people THINK?!

In that single moment you blush, say a few choice words yourself (under your breath, of course) and the disparaging voice in your head starts a whirling swirling monologue listing your incompetencies as a parent.

You wait for the ground to swallow you up and you wonder what evils you committed that could make YOUR child possibly say that?

Parents need to turn the situation around and while it is still embarrassing or awkward, they can see it as a learning and teaching opportunity and a chance to have a meaningful conversation about what's appropriate and what's not.
Associate Professor Dr Michael Nagel

Kids learn by mimicking. And swearing is no exception.

As a parent and a leading child development and education psychology specialist, University of the Sunshine Coast Associate Professor Dr Michael Nagel knows a thing or two about kids and those cringe-worthy moments.

"Clearly, the child has no idea," Dr Nagel says.

"As a parent we can get irate. The thing is, though, children learn by mimicking.

"So we are there saying 'Oh my gosh, did my child just say that? What will people think of me?'

"It's always in public and it is always cringeworthy.

"And, all too often it is delivered with an astoundingly good sense of context."

Dr Nagel says once the shock of the bombshell wears off, parents should stay calm and move away from the situation (taking the child with you, as tempting as it might be to disown them at that point in time!).

"The thing is, this is all said with the innocence of a child. They have no idea what they have just said or the seriousness or offence of it."

It's not just swearing, either, he says. Children are also very good at the inappropriate sharing of information.

A child who might not have seen someone of a different race or background, wearing a religious garment, who might have a disability, or is "different" to them or their parents and family in some way is quite likely to speak up and ask a question or make a statement we would otherwise deem as being insensitive or inappropriate.

The silver lining, Dr Nagel says, is the learning opportunity which comes from it.

"Parents need to turn the situation around and while it is still embarrassing or awkward, they can see it as a learning and teaching opportunity and a chance to have a meaningful conversation about what's appropriate and what's not.

"It's also a chance to broaden the child's greater understanding of people and the world around them, to acknowledge their differences and then make them feel like they are valued enough for mum and dad to sit down and speak with them about it."

As in everything with parenting, consistent and clear messages are key. Reminders about what's right and what's not are important for every child.

And, of course, it doesn't hurt to curb the language and before letting rip on a rant, or cursing loudly when you kick your toe, spare a thought for those young ears which might be listening and think for a moment what words you'd like coming from their mouths.