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When Young Children Use Profanity: How to Handle Cursing and Name Calling
By Timothy Jay, Ph.D.

Jimmy and Tommy (two five-year-olds) are playing together in the block area. When Jimmy won't share a block that Tommy feels he needs, Tommy calls Jimmy a "poop head." Ms. Smith, Jimmy and Tommy's teacher, overhears the exchange. What should she do? Ignore the bad language? Give Tommy a warning? Put Tommy in timeout? On a more philosophical level, Ms. Smith wonders if calling another child a "poop head" is really all that bad. After all, there are much worse words that Tommy could have used.Language values clearly vary from one community to another.

Language values are also influenced by social and economic forces. Parents in religious communities may want more restriction on profane language than parents from non-religious communities. Rural dwellers may resent city speakers' slang. Northerners may disparage southerners' dialects. In-groups may make ethnic and racial slurs about out-groups' members.

Communities often have conflicting child-rearing values. For example, some parents believe that children should be physically punished for bad language, while others may refuse to use physical punishment in any situation. Parents often expect teachers to use the same discipline techniques used at home. Some parents teach their children to defend themselves from bullies by fighting or cursing. All of these issues complicate the problem of young children using bad language and the range of solutions that the early childhood professional can use to solve bad language problems.

Language Styles
The terms cursing and dirty language are used broadly to refer to several categories of offensive speech: name calling, insulting, profanity, slang, vulgarity, obscenity, epithets, slurs, and scatology. Each of these categories represents a different speaker intention and each intention presents a different problem for early childhood professionals (Jay, 1996).

Cursing in public settings has been increasing in America, including in child care settings (Jay, 1992). Similar to styles of clothing, language styles range from formal to relaxed. Most educational settings strive for conventional or formal speech from children. Because many parents and families get along quite well with more relaxed codes, it is possible that the child care setting is the only place where some children hear conventional language spoken.

Because some curse words are more problematic than others, it is necessary to sort language into three categories: acceptable, unacceptable, and inappropriate. Acceptable language is what we read in a magazine or hear in a news broadcast. It is a formal or conventional level of speech that we hope young children will eventually learn and use. Unacceptable language is that which must be forbidden for legal reasons. Unacceptable language includes harassment, libel, threats, gender or racial discrimination, and obscenity. Inappropriate language is the gray area between acceptable and unacceptable language. It is language that depends heavily on context, because different contexts pose different standards or restrictions on language and behavior. What constitutes appropriate speech on the playground may not be appropriate within the classroom.

Unacceptable But Normal Behavior
Early childhood professionals and parents should anticipate children's dirty language. Most normal children will experiment with dirty words and dirty jokes in the course of growing up. They will also repeat powerful or offensive words that they hear adults use. Children may even make up unique words to use as insults. Children enjoy using language in jokes, puns, and stories that adults find "gross" (McGhee, 1979; Sutton-Smith & Abrams, 1978). Young children will freely use scatological references to body products (e.g., poop), body processes (e.g., fart), and body parts (e.g., butthole). As young children grow, they become more aware of social and psychological aspects of human interaction and their name calling will show their new awareness when you hear them using words such as weirdo, retard, spaz, fatty, jerk,and chicken(Thorne, 1993).

School-age children learn appropriateness when they are intellectually able to appreciate the impact of language on listeners and can empathize with them (Crosser, 1996). Egocentric young children do not fully comprehend why words are offensive to listeners, but can be trained not to use offensive words. One might simply tell a two- to three-year-old not to use a word without much explanation. Five-year-olds, on the other hand, can be given an explanation for language restrictions. The eight-year-old is capable of empathy and is able to see that words can hurt others' feelings.

Why Children Curse
Do you know why children curse? The first question to ask a child who has cursed is, "Why did you say that?" In other words, determine what caused the incident in the first place. Is the child seeking attention, bullying another child, or expressing anger? Was the child provoked by another child or was the cursing more spontaneous? You also have to distinguish children who have problems with language from children who have emotional problems with anger or aggression (i.e., children who use cursing as a general way to express anger).

Cursing is evoked by a small and predictable set of variables (Goodenough, 1931; Jay, 1992). Some children are positively reinforced by siblings or parents for cursing. Giving children attention, such as laughing or asking them to repeat a dirty word, is enough to increase cursing behavior. One common source of cursing is exposure to inappropriate adult role models-either parental figures or adults in the neighborhood (Vissing, Straus, Gelles, & Harrop, 1991). Popular culture in the form of television, movies, and music lyrics are also common sources of bad language. Children who are allowed access to media without restrictions or supervision are likely to bring bad language to the child care center.

What a child hears at home or in the neighborhood may get repeated at your center. In this case cursing may reflect the child's home life (Jorgenson, 1985). Similarly, teachers must address parents' perceptions that bad speech at school reflects school life. Parents who believe their children are learning bad language from someone at child care will usually complain. Both child care and home speech contexts affect a child's vocabulary.

Many adults have trouble with bad language from time to time. Unfortunately, some parents have difficulty controlling their children's inappropriate language (Berges, et al., 1983). Hearing racist, sexist, or offensive language may be a common experience for some young children. Although you cannot completely overcome narrow-mindedness at home, you do have the right and responsibility to suppress such language at your center.

What variables affect the speech of the children at your center? What are the religious and cultural backgrounds of the children? What is the nature of ethnic or socioeconomic tension? What are the homes of the children like? Are the children at your center exposed to conflicting school and home (parenting) values? It is helpful to determine how different community values affect speech. You may consider community values as a general antecedent condition that might lead some children to use offensive language more freely than other children.

Some children may exhibit cursing as a symptom of underlying, severe psychological problems, such as child abuse or physiological disorders (Frick, et al., 1994). Children with psychological problems or uncontrollable anger outbursts may need special attention or counseling. Determining the cause of cursing is the first step in a comprehensive behavior modification process.

Many Names for the Same Thing: Bad Language Defined
The following definitions come from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition, by Houghton Mifflin Company.

blas·phe·my (blás´fe-mê) noun A contemptuous or profane act, utterance, or writing concerning God or a sacred entity. The act of claiming for oneself the attributes and rights of God.curse(kûrs) nounA profane word or phrase; a swearword.

ep·i·thet(èp´e-thèt?) nounAn abusive or contemptuous word or phrase.

in·sult(în´sùlt?) nounAn offensive action or remark.

name-call·ing(nâm´kôlÎng) nounVerbal abuse; insulting language.

ob·scen·i·ty (òb-sèn´î-tê) noun Indecency, lewdness, or offensiveness in behavior, expression, or appearance.

pro·fan·i·ty (pro-fàn´î-tê) noun Abusive, vulgar, or irreverent language.

slang (slàng) noun A kind of language occurring chiefly in casual and playful speech, made up typically of short-lived coinages and figures of speech that are deliberately used in place of standard terms for added raciness, humor, irreverence, or other effect.

slur (slûr) noun A disparaging remark; an aspersion.

sca·tol·o·gy (skà-tòl´e-jê) noun Obscene language or literature, especially that dealing pruriently or humorously with excrement and excretory functions.

vul·gar·i·ty (vùl-gàr´î-tê) noun Something, such as an act or expression, that offends good taste or propriety.

The ABCs of Cursing
If you have established why the child cursed, you have established the antecedentconditions (i.e., cause). Antecedent is the A in ABC. Behavior is the B in ABC. Address the behavior itself-that is, the word(s) used. Did you hear mild speech (e.g., doo-doo head) or offensive speech (e.g., shit head)? Offensive language should result in more immediate and severe consequences than milder language. Consequences usually means applying behavior modification techniques (discussed later in this article).

To eliminate cursing and bad language, treat each cursing episode with the ABCs. Be consistent with all children at all times. Act quickly when cursing occurs and deal directly with the child who used the bad language.

Developing a Code of Conduct
If your center does not have a code of conduct, develop a clearly written guide for teachers and parents that addresses unacceptable behavior and language (Roscoe, Strouse, Goodwin, Taracks, & Henderson, 1994). Use definitive terms such as harassmentand obscenity rather than vague terms such as foul or bad language. Schedule an informal meeting with parents to discuss your center's code of conduct before their child begins to attend. The code can incorporate your center or community's values and should address issues such as language difficulties for families with non-native English speakers. Your code should be periodically reviewed and updated, if necessary.

An effective code of conduct for early childhood prepares young children for the elementary school setting and the codes therein. The code also informs parents about unacceptable behaviors that may require monitoring at home. To enforce the code of conduct, consider the behavior management and guidance procedures which your center allows. The following behavior modification techniques and tips are also useful.

Behavior Modification Techniques
There are several traditional behavior modification techniques and teacher behaviors that, when applied appropriately, eliminate cursing problems and replace them with acceptable forms of speech (Salend & Meddaugh, 1985).

Promote Good Character Traits.
Reinforce good language skills in the context of broader character building lessons which teach respect, reason, and responsibility. Children should learn that calling a person a name is both hurtful and disrespectful. The particular word used is a secondary issue; the act of verbally abusing another person is the main problem. Children must learn to take responsibility for the language they use. What you say can get you in trouble at home or at school. Children need to learn that there is a cost to breaking language rules.

On a practical level, children need to learn to use reason or good judgment regarding when and where to use offensive language, knowing that some name calling or insults may lead to physical retaliation against the speaker. Using bad language might make other listeners perceive cursing as a sign that the speaker is uneducated or out of control. Teaching good language skills and building character when children are young help prevent problems from developing later on. One way to foster good character and language skills is through an effective code of conduct.

Be a Good Role Model.
Because young children are little language vacuum cleaners ready to collect and repeat what they hear, teachers should be careful to attend to their own language so that they are good role models. Don't be caught off guard. Don't overreact or laugh when children curse. What you do when a child sends out a "test" bad word may have a lasting impact on the child. When a child curses intentionally or accidentally, act in the child's best interest. Work to establish a warm, positive relationship with the child, so that he or she will seek you out for information and advice about words. Teachers should also, from time to time, remind parents that they are language role models, too.

Reward the Use of Good Language.
Your goal is to eliminate unacceptable language while at the same time increasing the use of acceptable language. Give rewards in the form of positive comments for children's good speech. Comments such as, "I like the way you say that" and "You used a good word today" are effective reinforcers. Remember that while praise works, over-praise does not.

State Your Expectations.
Make your language use expectations clear to children and parents. For instance, if there are certain words that are always unacceptable at your center, make sure that parents are aware of them. If your expectations are unclear, then they cannot be followed.

Separate Disruptive Playmates.
Some children play well alone but have difficulty suppressing name calling and bad language when playing with particular classmates. When two children consistently get into trouble together, separate them as much as possible during free play periods.

Adapt the Physical Environment.
Control the physical environment and you control the behavior in it. Change factors in the center which cause conflicts or disputes. Eliminate frustrating situations such as having too few toys to share. Remove frustrating furniture and barriers. Create areas that provide for smooth transitions between activities and eliminate confusion and arguments.

Facilitate the Transition to Kindergarten.
The conduct code and treatment of children in the preschool should prepare children (and parents) for kindergarten and elementary school. Study the elementary school's code of conduct and make sure that you are "graduating" children who are prepared with good conduct and communication skills.

One important goal for educators is to instruct children to speak and write using acceptable (formal) language standards. The planning and preparation to achieve this goal begins with early childhood education. Appraise the entire learning environment from outlying neighborhoods down to the physical layout of your center. Assess the factors that give rise to cursing language, such as parental attitudes, a child's need to express emotions, and the way children are rewarded or disciplined for cursing. Develop an effective and responsive code of conduct to prepare children for elementary school. Weigh speech problems in the context of conduct problems. Learn to deal effectively with different levels of language through behavior modification techniques.

Cursing has been around since the beginning of language and there is no reason to believe that it will disappear on its own. What early childhood professionals can do is to understand the nature of cursing and how the total language environment influences children's cursing and our reactions to it.

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Goodenough, F.L. (1931). Anger in Young Children. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Jay, T.B. (1992). Cursing in America. Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Jay, T.B. (1996). What to Do When Your Students Talk Dirty. San Jose: Resource Publications, Inc.

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