Preschool is a time when children are making great strides in building their vocabularies. They practice language skills by repeating the sounds and words they hear around them, and often are not even aware of the meaning of many of the words and phrases they are using. However, parents can sometimes feel embarrassed, frustrated or angry when "bad words" come out of their young child's mouth.

It's essential for parents to remember that words only have power and meaning because we give them power and meaning. Preschool children have no idea that they have said a bad word until they see an adult’s reaction, as they do not really understand that words can be good or bad until they are taught so by adults.

Repeating bad words (and laughing hysterically about them) is often merely a stage that most preschool and kindergarten children go through. If this behavior is ignored or handled in a casual manner, this stage usually passes within a few months. If an adult makes a big deal about the words that are used, the child will learn that using these words is a fantastic way to get a reaction out of adults, which is a lot of power for a preschool child to have. You can be certain that will use that power as much as he can.

So how can parents react constructively to "bad words"? Simply demanding that a child stop a behavior without teaching her why, no matter what that behavior is, rarely works. In fact, this strategy often backfires, as prohibiting something without explaining why it is prohibited only adds to the allure of the behavior. Therefore, parents have to focus on teaching children how to communicate in a polite and positive manner. Here are some effective ways for dealing with a preschooler who is testing out the use of bad words:

  • The most important thing to do is to be relaxed and treat the bad word as if it is no big deal. Tell your child in a calm voice that he used a word that might make some people feel bad or uncomfortable, and that it's best to try not to use that word around others because you know he is a good person who does not want to make them feel bad. Then go back to what you were doing.
  • You can turn the use of a bad word into a lesson, instead of a time for punishment. Instead of just banning the use of a particular word, teach your child a few replacement words. Say that a big kid uses these words instead of the one he just used. It is helpful to be prepared. Think of some of the words that your child might hear and repeat, and come up with a few words to replace each one. When you hear your child using the replacement words, give a lot of attention and praise.
  • Address the meaning behind the words, not the words themselves. If your child uses the word in a rude or disrespectful way, deal with overall statement and attitude, not the word itself.
  • If you feel that certain words are simply unacceptable, let your child know how you feel in a calm and firm voice when he says those words. Tell him what the consequence will be the next time he says them. Make sure to follow through the next time by delivering the consequences immediately. Stay calm so that your child understands that you are teaching him appropriate behavior, but that he does not have the power to upset you in this way.
  • Monitor your own language. Even if you think your child cannot hear you, do not use words that you do not want your child to use. Take extra care not to use bad words when you are angry or frustrated, as you do not want your child to copy this behavior. If you do use inappropriate language at any time, admit it right away. Say that even adults make mistakes sometimes, but you will be careful to choose your words more carefully next time. Ask your child to help you think of ways that you could have expressed yourself differently.
  • Help children learn to control their behavior within different settings, which is a very important foundation for later academic and social development. Instead of banning a word completely, tell your child that the word can make others feel bad, so if he really feels the need to say the word, that’s okay. However, he should go into the bathroom or in his room, say the word as many times as he wants, and then return to the group when he is ready to use other words instead. 
  • The correct names for body parts and functions should not be considered bad words. Teach your child how to talk about body parts and functions openly and accurately. Telling children that certain body parts should not be talked about or should not be called by their real names only teaches children that they should be uncomfortable with certain parts of their body. You will also be making these words even more appealing to use because children will learn that they upsetting to adults.

The most important lesson to teach children about language is that sometimes words can be used to hurt others, whether they are considered swear words or they are other words that are used in a mean way. Instead of focusing so heavily on preventing the use of certain words, help your child learn to make good choices about staying away from any words that make others feel bad.