Fielding Foulmouthed Toddlers


My two-year-old probably has a working vocabulary of around 100 words, all but 2 of which sound like gibberish to anyone other than immediate family. Of those two, the first is the well-known parenting call, ‘Mommymommymommy’ and the second, that other universal favourite: ‘Fuck’.

Oh, the shame of it.

The worst part is that I can’t even blame boisterous older brothers or anything – anyone who has spent any time at all with our family will know instantly that I am the culprit. I can’t help it (she whines flailingly in her defence) - I love swearing. Nothing adds a bit of dash to a sentence like a well-placed fuck. I blame too many years at boarding school and a complete absence of ballet lessons.

It isn’t as if I haven’t tried. But while I have managed to tone myself down considerably since having children and have all but eradicated the F-word as adjective and adverb from my vocabulary, I still think even the more mild-mannered will have to grant that it is really hard to get rid of the Ultimate Expletive. 

I mean, does anyone actually manage to say ‘oh bother’ when they drop a soiled nappy sunnyside down on the nursery carpet at 3 in the morning amidst the hysterical cries of a colicky baby? I think not. No one still boasting a handful of marbles anyway.

And of course it is the expletives that toddlers delightedly catch on to first – earnestly rolling them around their mouths with that look of total jaw-slacking concentration until they have them just right. Until your mother-in-law is having morning tea with you, the garbage truck trundles by and your sweetums dashes headlong down the passage shrieking ’Oh fuck! Oh fuck!’ .

‘Now, where could he have got that from?’ you venture quaveringly over your teacup.

After quite a number of these eye-wateringly embarrassing moments, I have come up with a theory. You are never going to bypass the swearing stage altogether, unless you have a truly Flanders-like household (in which case, good for you – go and read the breastfeeding articles again) so you might as well have a strategy for dealing with the problem.

Mine is called the 4-D Plan: Deny, Distract, Deploy and lastly, Deflect.

Denying is mostly for home-based vocabulary lapses and goes something like this. Toddler drops his eggy toast on the floor and mutters something unsavoury under his breath (which suspiciously echoes the phrase you used a minute ago when you burnt yourself on the toaster). You ignore it completely – it did not happen. You do not smile (this is the tricky bit), you do not howl out in horror, you do not kick your husband under the table and tell him that it all his fucking fault. You simply move swiftly on to the next topic of conversation. 

This sounds simple, but is actually quite hard, especially when you are enveloped in clouds of guilt and visions of your ostracised son swearing ferociously to himself alone on a school playground. But as with all toddler bad habits – provide an audience, and you will have provided the reason for a repeat performance.

Distraction is mostly for public lapses of propriety, but only works with certain words and requires a certain level of mental dexterity. Take this scenario – you dash to the post office in the rain, with your toddler saddled wet and heavy on one hip. Inside, there is a queue 14-strong.  You swear under your breath and your toddler takes up the chant like a joyful parrot, much to the astonishment of the grey-haired woman in front of you…

You interject quickly with ‘Well no, honey, you can’t have a SHEET (emphasis here) of paper to draw on now, you’ll have to wait until we get home. In the meantime – how about a fruit stick?’ and shove a treat from the bottom of your handbag into his mouth. 

See? Toddler plugged and dignity restored… even if the granny looks slightly dubious. The trick is that you have to act fast.

If your toddler’s mouth is becoming habitually foul (ie: the other mothers are beginning to avoid both you and your colourful offspring), you might find it works to Deploy the big guns – and send your toddler to his own Granny for a week. I suppose this only works if you have one as gentle and sugar-tempered as my own mother, but after a mere weekend visit, my son was lifting his hand to his mouth and saying ‘Oh, my word” every time he spilt a little juice on the floor.

But what about those moments when you can’t distract the coffee table of mothers, who all clearly saw the air around your son turn bluer than the play dough he was enthusiastically pummelling? What then, when all eyes turn on you, filled with horror and suspicion?

It is time to Deflect. Take your child firmly on your lap, look him in the eye and say sternly, ‘ Well. That’s the last time I am letting you play with Douglas.’

Let’s see how fast Douglas’s mom can think.

To see how Sam's swearing policy later evolves, read ‘I swear with my children. On purpose.’

What are your rules when it comes to swearing in your household?

Read more by Sam Wilson

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