Potty Talk: Curbing Bad Language in Toddlers


If you listen closely to the words preschoolers use, you'll find that their vocabulary is not as innocent as we might hope. Their conversations are peppered with aggressive phrases. Some are simple adult curses. Others, such as "poo-poo head," are unique to young children.

Children learn the meanings of most words from the context in which they're used. That's why a toddler may ask for "milk" when she wants something else to drink. For her, "milk" is simply the word associated with drinking. She has derived the meaning of that word from what happens when she says it.

Tools for Getting Attention

If you ask a 4-year-old who's used an adult curse what that word means, odds are she'll say something like "It's what you say when you want people to pay attention to you." Her comment reveals that she understands the power of words – especially certain words – even if she doesn't quite know their meaning.

Dr. Timothy B. Jay, a professor of psychology at North Adams State College in Massachusetts, has been studying the patterns of cursing and other forms of aggressive language among children. He's found that here, as in other areas of verbal development, girls take the lead. On average, 3- and 4-year-old girls know 23 aggressive phrases and curses, compared with only 17 for the boys.

It's important to understand not only why children speak this way, but also how their interpretations of these words are often quite different from ours.

Strong Words, Strong Emotions

A 3-year-old may use "potty language" to tease a playmate. She's not being literal, of course. Instead, it's a way for her to own her recent mastery of toilet training or even her current struggle with it. The same holds true when one preschooler calls another a "fraidy cat" or something similar. These are years of intense emotions. One of the challenges facing preschoolers is learning to keep their emotions under greater control. By calling someone else such a name, a child can send the message that she's not scared. Once again, the language of the child reflects the developmental issues that dominate her own life.

It's Everywhere

It's highly unlikely that you'll be able to protect your children from hearing foul language. It's all around them in preschool, on the playground, and on the screens they use, even if those words are never uttered at home. The real challenge is to help children learn when using such language is socially appropriate and to help them master the verbal skills they'll need to express themselves more effectively without using such language.

Helpful Hints

What can you do? Here are three suggestions:

  • Most of the time, young children who curse or use foul language repeatedly are doing so because of the extra attention it gets them. Ignoring their behavior usually causes them to move on to something else. It simply isn't as much fun if adults don't make a fuss over it.

  • Teach alternative phrases ("Darn it!") to your children. As with other problem behaviors, simply telling a child not to do something isn't as effective as offering a different but equally satisfying behavior. Suggesting alternative phrases lets your child know that you're aware of her strong emotions and gives her a way to express those emotions in a more acceptable fashion.

  • Try to clean up your own act. Your children take many cues from you about what language is suitable in different situations. You can't expect a preschooler who's been encouraged to learn new words and to express herself clearly not to use the emotion-laden phrases she hears coming out of your mouth.

About Lawrence KutnerRead More