Cleaning Up My Toddler's Potty Mouth

by Meredith Hale
Originally Published: 
bad word toddler
Sylvie Bouchard / Shutterstock

“You made me a turkey sandwich, again?” my toddler asks, looking up at me, his blue eyes sparkling, his entire 3-foot frame radiating mischief. “What the fuck?”

I wince, and explain to him, yet again, that his word choice isn’t nice or appropriate for a 3-year-old. Yes, he heard Daddy say it. Yes, grown-ups sometimes say bad words. Yes, Mommy and Daddy should try harder to clean up our act.

This conversation has become exhausting.

I never thought I’d be one of those “don’t say that in front of the children!” parents. But here I am, a 40-year-old woman, watching my every word so my son doesn’t repeat, at show and tell, the bad word Mommy said when the frozen chicken fell from the freezer onto her head.

And it gets worse. Think being called a “poopy head” is a minor offense? Wait until your little one calls you a “fuckhead.” It’s enough to make you want to drop what you’re doing and research Shakespearean insults. I’ll take being called a “dried neat’s tongue” over that gem any day.

Every car ride has become a pop quiz. “Is ‘damn’ a bad word? ‘Heck’? What about ‘damn heck’?” Does he get extra points for that one?

The terrain grows a bit murky, from a philosophical standpoint. I’m a writer by trade, and I like to think words are neither good nor bad, but merely ways of describing the world around us. Some of the most famous writers throughout history have employed colorful vocabularies, from D. H. Lawrence to Henry Miller. I’m not thrilled about censoring my son, or about imbuing certain words (outside of obvious racial epithets) with positive or negative values.

But then there’s the whole societal expectation thing, because every time my toddler curses in public, he might as well be flying a banner that says “My mommy is a terrible, irresponsible parent raising me to be a juvenile delinquent. Please call social services immediately, motherfucker!”

And certain phrases are even more problematic.

“Is ‘Jesus Christ’ a bad word?” my son asks, genuinely confused.

I’m confused too. As a mixed-faith household, religion doesn’t figure prominently into our lives. My husband and I haven’t yet figured out how to explain certain concepts to our kids, and I’m fairly certain my toddler has no idea who Jesus Christ is, let alone what irreverent means.

“No, it’s not a bad word,” I respond slowly, not sure where I’m headed. “It’s just… It’s just not something you say in casual conversation.”

“But you and Daddy say it all the time.” And this is true. Again, I’m floundering, trying to help my son adjust to expectations that seem wildly inconsistent. Where do you set the bar? Is “Oh my God!” offensive? Will mobs with bibles and pitchforks descend upon me if I utter “What the heck?” — a transparent substitute for the more unholy word choice? Will the house burst into flames if Daddy shouts “Gosh darn it!”?

And what about that whole “glass houses” thing? Society frowns on a 3-year-old blurting out “Jesus Christ!” when informed there’s no more orange paint in his art set. And yet, pretty much every adult I know is guilty of this irreverence — even the ones who make it to church more than twice a year. But hypocrisy is another concept my son is probably too young to understand.

And so I do my best to steer my son toward “clean” language, even if sometimes my explanations make no sense and some of the adults in his life use language that would make Chris Rock blush. I hope that he follows my teachings and the positive example I really do try to set. I urge him to use “nice words,” and consider his manners, and always, always follow the Golden Rule.

And, if he offends, you have my sincere, fucking apologies.

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