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Fatherly Advice: Don’t Panic When Kids Swear, Give Them Fiddlesticks

Got a kid with a pottymouth? Don't try to quiet them. Give them new words to express themselves.

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“Fatherly Advice” is a weekly parenting advice column by the experts at Fatherly. Need hard-won insights and scientific facts to resolve a parenting dilemma or family dispute? Email advice@fatherly.com. Need justifications for parenting decisions you’ve already made? Ask someone else. We’re far too busy for that nonsense.

 

Fatherly,

I wouldn’t consider myself a big drinker. I maybe drink a beer a night. Some nights I don’t have a beer at all and some weekend nights I might have more than one. But lately, my second grader has been shaming me every time I crack a beer. She tells me I drink too much. I don’t know where she got the idea. How do I tell her I’m fine?

Sam
Omaha, Nebraska

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I have some good news and some bad news for you, Sam. If you’re drinking as moderately as you say, then there’s little room to suggest that your drinking, in an of itself, is harming your kid. But, the bad news is that really doesn’t matter if your kid is getting stressed out by your drinking.

You see, it would be one thing if your drinking was causing you to behave in ways that were damaging and abusive to your family. If you were unable to function and your drinking was affecting your job, well, that would indicate you have a problem. But that does not appear to be the case. Still, the stress your child feels is a real stress. Even if it comes from a made-up place.

There are some studies to suggest your daughter is in good company when it comes to her concern. In one study out of the United Kingdom, a full 18 percent of children said they were embarrassed by their parent’s drinking, despite the fact the parents only drank the equivalent of one glass of wine a night. Can that embarrassment or worry cause your daughter any harm? Sure. Seeing you drink when she’s stated her concern could erode trust. She might decide she can’t rely on you like she once thought. The stress itself can possibly lead to behavioral issues, or, in extreme circumstances, weaken the immune system and leave her more susceptible to cold and flu viruses.

So what’s the answer? Well, I’m not going to tell you that the answer is for you to stop drinking altogether. Of course, if that’s something you’re willing to try, more power to you. After all, there are plenty of studies that suggest drinking, even in moderation isn’t a good thing for anyone. Still, it’s better to be realistic. The better idea might be to reserve your drinking for when your daughter is in bed. It’s a simple matter of shifting your nightly brew a little later in the evening. If she doesn’t see you drink, and your drinking isn’t causing a problem, then you should both be pretty happy.

Is it an inconvenience? Sure. But that’s parenting for you.

 

Fatherly,

So, the other day I watched Back to the Future with my 8-year-old. I didn’t remember how much swearing was in that movie. As a direct result, my kid started gleefully yelling “shit” in difficult situations. How can I get him to stop doing that without losing my own shit?

Simon,
Pensacola, Florida

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Oh fuck. I feel for Simon. The rating system has definitely changed since the days of Back to the Future, which probably should have been PG-13 given all the incest. So here we are. Shit is, as they say, out of the bag. It’s less a matter of getting it back in the bag as helping your kid understand better ways to express themselves. You need to have a two-track strategy when trying to get your kid to stop using a swear word. You need to reduce the use of the word while simultaneously teaching your kid a new way to express their damn selves. This will require that you supply some alternative language and refuse to acknowledge the fecal vocabulary stinking up the joint.

The thing is, your son is using the s-word because he knows it’s a great way to get a rise out of someone. He may have figured that out from you, or your partner, or a friend. Every time he says it, the distance between frustration and exclamation gets shorter. So, first things first, you’re going to stop reacting to the word. You don’t hear it anymore. It does not exist. Importantly, it does not exist in your own vocabulary, either. Because you can’t expect to keep your son from saying shit when you walk around saying it yourself. Your son, even at 8, is still very much looking at your behavior to guide his own. So keep the swearing out of your kid’s earshot for the time being unless you want to just give up and live with an expletive shouting child.

Now you need to give your kid a word he can say when he’s frustrated. Make it something fun and innocuous. Consider a word like “donkey farts” or “fiddlesticks” or maybe even the shit-adjacent “shoot”. Once you’ve hit upon a good proxy, rehearse it with your kid. Practice. Pretend you’re in one of those difficult situations and have him say the new word. Do it over and over again.

Finally, when your kid chooses to say the right word outside of practice, make sure you offer big praise. Let them know you heard it and you’re very proud they made the right choice. That will go a long way to making sure he’s shooting instead of shitting. Oh, also, maybe skip Back to the Future II for a few years. You know, just to be safe.