Dear Mr. Dad: My kindergartener has begun swearing around the house when he’s frustrated or angry. I’m terrified that he’ll do it in front of his grandparents or at school. How can I nip this in the bud before it becomes a real problem?

A: Just as most parents never forget their child’s first step or the first tooth, it’s hard to forget the first time our sweet baby opens those innocent little lips and lets lose with a loud “damn it”—or worse. It can also be hard to put it in perspective, and we tend to immediately imagine a slippery slope leading from profanity directly to the penitentiary.

Relax. Unless you raise a child in a bubble, it’s going to be pretty much impossible to keep him from hearing an occasional swear word. And it doesn’t take long for kids to realize from the context—and the reaction they get when repeating those words ad nauseum—that certain words have a lot of emotional power. Experimenting with that power doesn’t indicate a future life of crime or even a turn toward bad behavior. A nationwide poll done in 2006 poll found that over two thirds of Americans report swearing themselves at least occasionally—and most of us have avoided time in the slammer.

The main issue for parents is that kids lack the judgment to determine when (if ever) strong language is permissible. You shouldn’t swear in front of a child because you know exactly what you’re saying and what it means. Your child, on the other hand, shouldn’t swear for the opposite reason: he doesn’t know what he’s saying.

A few things to consider:

    Don’t overreact. Because they are experimenting with power, kids will only be encouraged by an over-the-top reaction from Mom or Dad. Calmly explain that the word in question is inappropriate.
    Validate the emotions behind it. If your child is swearing when he’s angry, it’s important to validate the emotion even as you discourage that particular way of expressing it. Try something like, “I understand that you’re angry, but using those words will create more problems. Let’s find a better way to express your feelings.”
    Consider the source. If you swear around the kids, don’t be surprised to hear it coming back at you. But even if your home is a profanity-free zone, you can be certain your kids are hearing choice language on the playground and perhaps on television and in video games. You can and should limit their exposure to coarse language, but there’s no way to completely avoid it. Instead, help your kids understand what it is and why it’s inappropriate.
    Set rules and consequences. Let your child know that swearing is unacceptable the first time it happens and explain what the consequences for this behavior will be in the future. Decide on appropriate consequences and follow through.
    Help your children find better word choices to express their strong emotions. There’s a long list of words invented for this very purpose. I once worked with a very upright and proper woman in her sixties who would exclaim, “Oh peas and carrots!” when something went wrong. Another friend always said “Firetruck!” or “Damage!” Why not make a game out of inventing a harmless substitute for the offensive word?

Fortunately, the fascination with cursing almost always loses steam as kids become more mature. Or perhaps they develop the necessary judgment to use the “blue” end of the language spectrum in moderation—and not in front of Grandma.