Cleaning up a "Potty Mouth" - What can parents do

Armen Hareyan's picture

If a parent becomes angry or totally involved, the child has, in a way, gained the attention he craved. There are several logical steps parents can take to stop this language.

My 4-year-old has begun to use foul language and seems to have a fair number of words to choose from. I have sent him to his room to try to correct this behavior, but he continues to have a "potty mouth." What else can I do?

Using foul language is very common throughout childhood. When trying to stop this behavior, it is helpful to understand why children may begin to use foul language and to determine where the child heard these words. Children love to imitate, particularly their parents, and imitation of language and behavior is an important way a child learns. Parents can think about how enthusiastic a 2-year-old is when playing patty-cake or the intent satisfaction a 5-year-old gets from dressing up in their parents' clothes, playing house, etc.

Almost invariably, children who use foul language have heard these inappropriate words used by adults, and occasionally by other children who also are using foul language for attention from their peers. These children notice the amount of attention these words have drawn. Even if they do not know or understand the meaning of foul words (and they almost never do), they will take delight in the amount of attention they perceive they are getting from using such language.

Excessive attention from parents, when the child uses these words, may lead to further use rather than correction. If a parent becomes angry or totally involved, the child has, in a way, gained the attention he craved. There are several logical steps parents can take to stop this language.

The first step is to avoid getting upset. Instead, immediately tell the child that use of that particular language is unacceptable. This is done with as little attention as possible.

Secondly, be consistent. Anytime anyone hears your child use a curse word or a word that is not permitted in your family, gently state this is unacceptable and help the child find another word. Children must understand that just because they hear these words on television, at school or by their friends, this language is not acceptable in their particular family.


Children rarely will use foul language as an expression of anger as they observe from adults. If this happens, try talking to the child about the anger and how using such words will not help lessen the anger or make it go away. If need be, you can let the child use more acceptable expressions, such as "shucks," "darn," etc.

By far, the most important thing to do to stop your child from using foul language is to make sure neither parent, nor other adults the child loves and respects, uses foul language in their presence. Children always will be more prone to "do as we do" as adults, rather than "as we say."

If children do persist and do not respond to the above measures, you can always consider some type of discipline when foul language is used. If you choose this route, discipline must be consistent and always applied immediately in context with the child's use of foul language.

Again, if adults set a good example of refraining from foul language and do not give a child the expected attention when the child uses a foul word, most children will easily overcome the desire or habit of using such words.

(Dr. Betty Ann Lowe is an Arkansas pediatrician, past Medical Director of Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock and professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.)

Questions for Dr. Lowe may be submitted to [email protected]

Arkansas Children's Hospital is the comprehensive clinical, research and teaching affiliate of the College of Medicine at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. UAMS pediatric faculty physicians and surgeons are on staff at Arkansas Children's Hospital. - (Little Rock, Arkansas " July 21, 2005)

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This page is updated on March 15, 2013