Tuesday, August 27, 2013

How to Teach Your Kids about Swear Words & Encourage a Respectful Vocabulary

My 4 year old son is at a stage where he is asking if various words are "bad". He'll come up to me and say, "Is crap a bad word?" "Is holy cow a bad word?" and even, "Is shit a bad word?"

I think most people would say, "yes that is or no that isn't."

But is it really a bad word???? Even "swear" words?????
The answer in my opinion is, "No".
No words are bad and no words are good. They're just letters put together to make certain sounds. It's the MEANING, tone, emphasis, context, and intent behind the word that makes it good or bad.  
 For example: "Ass" and "Hell" are words used in the bible. As adults we all know that the author is merely speaking of a donkey and the place where Satan dwells. Simple and innocent words. But calling someone an "ass" or telling them to "go to hell" all the sudden makes those words disrespectful and derogatory. Using those words in a different context changed their meaning and made all the difference didn't it? We all know that- but a child might not. If they learn that "ass" is a bad word, and then innocently read or hear the word "ass" in the bible or the dictionary, it can produce feelings of shame and guilt. And for what? In one context an entirely different definition was meant, and in another they were inquiring the definition. In neither case should they feel ashamed or guilty. Learning that there are "good" words and "bad" words can lead to shame, regret, or guilt when your child innocently hears or reads that word... whatever that word may be. There is no sense in feeling shame when you read the word "ass" in the bible. (I know I felt it as a child. I would pass over it and mentally insert "donkey" in its place)

And there is no sense in a child feeling shame or guilt if he/she innocently inquires about a word they heard. Responding with surprise and disgust (Gasp! Where did you hear that word! Never say that word again!) isn't fair to the child. How would you feel if someone scolded you for saying, "Vipzyg"..... (made up word intended) you've never heard the word, it means nothing to you, but you see that people use it and sometimes people react strongly to it. So you innocently inquire about the word... and then get reprimanded strongly for inquiring. And worse yet, you don't understand why.
Children deserve an explanation. If they inquire about the meaning of a certain word, or if they want to know if a word is good/bad, they deserve to know the definition and why you/others/society thinks it's bad.

So why is meaning and context so important to teach to young children instead of good words vs. bad words???

*Swear words change over time. Words that were considered profane 100 years ago are now not. Some that weren't now are. And with our ever evolving language- one that is now sped up due to technology, we even have acronyms and numbers that are now considered profane and insulting. Acronyms that will undoubtedly change and evolve probably very rapidly. ( WTF or 666 for example )

*They vary from culture to culture and from language to language. At some point in time they may come into contact with others who speak different languages or maybe even get lucky enough to experience life in a different culture. Are you going to teach them exactly what words are "bad" and offensive in every language/culture they may potentially come across in their lifetime?

*"Swear" words can also vary from family to family. I know when I was growing up I wasn't allowed to say that I was "pissed off" because the word "piss" was off limits. According to my parents it was a swear word. Yet (much to my confusion) it was a perfectly acceptable word and phrase to say in some of my friend's families. There is no way for them to know what words are appropriate from one family to another. It may be perfectly acceptable for them to say, "shit" or "God" in your household, but very disrespectful at their friends house. (or vice verse). In our family we try to use God's name (and all religious deities; Buddha, Shiva, Jehova, etc) with reverence and respect, but we live in an area where many people use the word, "God" in ways that don't harmonize with what we believe. However, my children have learned the importance of context and intent and understand that what we consider a sacred word, many others don't. Because often times the way people use the word isn't meant to be disrespectful, it's apart of their culture, it's a learned habit, or it's just like any other word to them. What one person may find offensive another person won't. You cannot choose what other people say, and sometimes you can't choose what you hear either. 

Teaching children that there are no good words or bad words, just respectful and disrespectful ways to use words is not only a more well rounded and logical point of view- it will also help them to internalize the importance of choosing to avoid disrespectful words and phrases.

It provides clear guidelines for every sentence and word they choose.  

Because to a child... why exactly IS that a bad word? It's just a word. Why does it offend? Why do people say it? What does it mean? Are there more words like it? Why did this person just tell me that it isn't a swear word but that person told me that it is? Which is it?
It is easier for a child to understand... "Using this word in this way hurts people because...." than it is for them to understand, "this word is a bad word."
So.... Is "crap" a bad word?
No, son. There are no bad words or good words. A word can BECOME bad. But it isn't bad to begin with. Remember, there are respectful things to say and disrespectful things to say. Crap is another word for poop. So sometimes people call their poop or their dog's poop "crap". Other times people say, "crap" when they've messed something up, like, "oh crap!" But anytime you call someone a name, or use the word crap to be mean, it then BECOMES a bad word, a disrespectful word.

 Is "holy cow" a bad word?
No, son. There are no bad words or good words. Only respectful things to say and disrespectful things to say. Holy Cow is an expression people use to verbalize astonishment, like another way to say "WOW!" (Think that sentence is too big for a 4 year old? Read Why I Use Big Words With My Kids here)

Is "shit" a bad word?
No, son, remember... there are no bad words or good words. Only respectful things to say and disrespectful things to say. It all depends on how you say it and what you mean by saying it. Shit is another word for poop. It is the word people used for poop hundreds of years ago (true story. It didn't become an offensive word until hygiene became more privatized) It can also mean that something isn't very great, like, "this is shitty" or sometimes is said when people are surprised or angry, like, "oh shit".  If you read this word- like in a dictionary- it's just a word- until it makes you feel something. If it makes you feel bad then it's a word you should choose not to say. But this word is a word that you have to be very careful with. A lot of people call this word a "swear word." Saying this word can offend a lot of people. You have to be careful with it. And it's also a word that a lot of people use  to hurt others. And any word that we use to put other people down or to hurt someone else always BECOMES a bad word and a disrespectful word to say.

And in all honesty- sometimes a lengthy answer isn't necessary. For my inquisitive son, nothing less than a lengthy, well rounded answer will suffice. Sometimes the answer to, "Is _____ a bad word?" can be answered with a simple,

"If the word is used to hurt others, or a word makes you feel bad inside- then it can become a bad word. But most words are not bad. They're just words. It depends on how you say it and what you mean."

You can use your words..... THOUSANDS of words, verbal, nonverbal, and in a multitude of languages, to show respect, to disrespect, to lift someone up or to bring someone down. What one may find offensive, another may not. Learning the most common words people use to offend and the swear words of your language and society will probably happen naturally, innocently, and over time. Having the ability to discern context, intent, and meaning, and learning to choose words with positive and respectful meanings can have nothing but a positive effect on their self esteem and confidence,  and perhaps more importantly, will foster a general attitude of respect, tolerance and acceptance in them. 
Because they're just words.

Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words will never hurt me.



  1. Thank you. I love this and plan to use this approach with my students this year.

  2. I like the idea but I would also teach that using words like shit and other profane words in your vocabulary can make you slip up and you use it to offend. I tell my children that there are sour and sweet words. We always use sweet words when talking. When I hear someone use slang and profanity even if it's not used to hurt someone my interest in hearing them speak anymore just became disinterested. It may be used to describe something but there are also proper words to use also that sound better and is not really used to hurt others.