For Sunday school teachers to know what to do when a child swears, we need to understand why children swear and how to properly respond—at each age.
Children From 1-2 years
As children learn to communicate verbally, they pass through the following stages:
- they imitate sounds;
- they imitate simple words;
- they use single words meaningfully;
- they imitate simple phrases;
- they put words together into phrases;
- they respond appropriately to sentences and questions.
At this age, children will seldom curse. However, if they do, they usually are repeating words that mean nothing to them.
Model desirable language patterns. Speak in a positive light. Affirm children for using appropriate language. Never swear. If you hear a child at this age swear, ignore the language. If a swearing child doesn’t get any attention, he or she won’t have a reason to continue using that kind of language.
Children From 3-5 years
Preschoolers broaden their experiences as they spend more and more time with peers and adults other than family members. They still imitate words they hear. They eagerly repeat new and different words—such as curse words. Sometimes these children are just repeating the words because they have heard them or they like the sound of these swear words. At other times, children test adults to see what response will result when they curses.
Sometimes they seek laughter and attention. Never laugh at a child who swears, but don’t overreact either. Remain calm. If a child frequently swears, say, “Here’s another way to tell us you’re angry” or “There are many other words we can use—such as fiddlesticks, rats and shoot.” This usually will stop the swearing. If the swearing is a one-time affair, ignore it. If a child is seeking a response and you don’t give it, the swearing will stop. Involving children in meaningful Bible-learning activities will prevent swearing. When children are actively involved, they seldom exhibit behavior that needs to be changed.
Children From 6-11 years
Children at this age are more and more interested in peer approval rather than adult approval. Many of these kids spend much time watching television. Both friends and the media may encourage swearing and cursing. Also, children at this age are learning how to respond to their negative feelings. They may see their friends—or other adults—venting their anger by swearing. If swearing is a one-time or infrequent behavior, the most effective response is to ignore it.
A child who curses incessantly should be taken aside and dealt with directly. Say to the child: “We do not use that kind of language here. If you are upset about something, it is better to say you’re mad rather than to use those words.” When you do intervene, stress that the words are bad, not the child. Work on preventing swearing by planning exciting, meaningful activities for this age group.
Barbara Bolton is a former curriculum consultant and resource specialist in Ohio and has worked with children for more than 35 years.