Mind Your Language, Our Children Are Listening

December 28th, 2010 by Dionna | 16 Comments
Posted in natural parenting, Strive for Balance

2010-12-26 01

He may look like he's preoccupied, but he's still listening!

Over the holidays, we had an adult guest in our home who kept proclaiming that things were “stupid” and using other words that we aren’t ready for Kieran to learn yet. Kieran was on the floor about two feet away playing with a toy car.

After a volley of “stupids” followed by the phrase “pissed off,” Tom very calmly said “Whoa! Careful, Kieran is right here. Please watch what you’re saying around him.”

The response?

Who cares? He’s not paying any attention.

That statement, however, is misinformed. The fact that Kieran was not looking at the speaker does not mean that he could not hear or understand the words.

How often have you caught a few words of a conversation that weren’t intended for your ears – even if your attention was elsewhere? We do not need to be fully involved in a conversation to pick up its meaning or the words people use.

Children hear and comprehend more than we give them credit for. “‘There is often a huge difference between receptive language and expressive language at this age . . . .  Toddlers can clearly understand complex conversation long before most parents think they can.'”1 And when they do have more expressive language? Well it just makes sense that they’re going to use the words they hear, especially those they hear at home.2

It is important to us to act as role models for our child. We are mindful of the words we choose. We make efforts to monitor what language he is exposed to (on television, in books, etc.). And we are confident enough to politely ask our guests to select their words with care around our child.

That shouldn’t be too much to ask, should it?

What are your thoughts: would you feel comfortable enough to ask a guest to tone it down around the kids?

  1. What Toddlers Understand When Adults Talk (citations in original). This is often a common theme in Janet Lansbury’s posts as well, such as the one she wrote about Talking to Toddlers.
  2. Handling Swearing & Cursing: A Guide for Parents

16 Responses to:
"Mind Your Language, Our Children Are Listening"

  1. Kate

    Absolutely! Unfortunately people who aren’t familiar with child development just aren’t that aware of what kids do/do not understand and since it’s my job as a parent to protect my son that means educating them. I’ve already dealt with the issue with my husband. When our son was about 16 months old one of our cats was really pestering him and he said something about wanting to kick the cat. When I asked him not to speak that way around the baby his response was the classic “why, he doesn’t understand anyway?” Fortunately when I pointed out that our son did in fact know “kick” (from kicking balls) and “cat” and said that I didn’t want our son even thinking of those two things together my husband got it and he has watched his language ever since.

  2. kent hadley   kenthadley

    Yesterday was my granddaughter’s 4th birthday party. I was in the lower level with the older kids when the girls came down and started jumping on grandpa, calling me names which they took out of the Shrek movie the older kids were watching. Among the names were crack head and cracker. Then one started calling me a young focker which I took to be another word and went to her mom. she said she got the word from the TV commercial about the movie and has been using it ever since. How true but yet how hard to protect our kids from language today. What grandpa did was to have a meeting with his gang of four year olds and establish acceptable names they could call him. Like grandpa, and bald grandpa, and old grandpa, and laughing grandpa. It worked well and the kids were happy. To them the name was not as important as it was to call me something as they jumped on me.

  3. krysten

    Oh my gosh, my 3.5 yr old also saw the Focker movie preview on tv (grr) and was using that word for EVERYTHING! thanks tv. We also have older kids/teens or others who just don’t think about what they’re saying. If they say stupid or crap Kian usually pipes up and says “stupid is a bad word, don’t say that!” so that definitely helps. People have used swear words around my kids and I just say “little ears are listening” or something similar and that usually get its to stop. Or we told Kian that “stinky” is okay but not “crappy” or other so he’ll correct people too. We tell them they can say silly words like “fancy cat” or “ketchup face”. This helps and makes people laugh without hurting feelings or saying bad words. I don’t hesitate to say anything to people who come into MY home, the problem I find is out and about, on the street, in stores, cuss words flying, etc. I usually loudly say to my husband about our kids’ listening to these ‘bad words’ hoping it helps the guilty party to stop….doesn’t usually…

  4. kelly @kellynaturally   kellynaturally

    No, I don’t think its too much to ask folks to monitor their language around children.

    That being said, many people don’t understand which language is acceptable or not around children – just look at typical “children’s” TV programming or movies. Many themes & words (like stupid, dumb, fat, etc.) are used without hesitancy in kids programming; so many adults (perhaps even more so those without children, though, unfortunately, many with) think that language is perfectly acceptable. Because, if a movie is rated G or it’s on TV, it’s okay, right? So, while you may ASK, it doesn’t mean your asking will be interpreted in the way you’d like.

    Also, and I know you know this, but since we CAN’T control anyone other than ourselves, I’ve found its helpful to USE these situations as learning opportunities – to introduce our children to the fact that not everyone chooses the right words, but that we can all choose better words, and that certain words can be hurtful, and some words are unnecessary, and better kept to ourselves.

    Love your writing, as usual.

    ps: When we met our friends at the movie theatre to see Secretariat, my husband ended up leaving with our 3 year old during the PREVIEWS to go participate in a different activity with him, because the darned previews themselves were just seriously inappropriate for a young child, IMO. Kids that age don’t need to be exposed to violence of any kind (they actually showed a preview for that runaway train film – the name escapes me – that’s scary even for ADULTS), even “cartoon” violence (some action film transformers or spiderman or something) and they don’t need exposure to adult sexual tension through innuendo in kids films (think movies like Shrek) – written with the intention of “going over children’s heads”. So. Just so you know where I’m coming from. :)

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Kelly – I completely agree! The language they use in kids’ shows is often abhorrent. We are pretty strict with what Kieran is allowed to watch, and even with the movies/shows we do approve of, there are several cringe-worthy moments. I’m waiting for him to use some of the words he hears (for example, I can think of instances in Cars where someone says “moron” and “idiot”), and yes, I do want to use those as learning opportunities.
      And you’re so right about having different interpretations of what is acceptable, especially for adults who do not have children. My standards are so different now that I have one of my own!

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment :)

  5. MomAgain@40   karentoittoit

    I will definitely ask a guest to tone down their language! Not acceptable at all!
    Yes, we must be very careful… Thanks for reminding us!

  6. janetlansbury   janetlansbury

    Dionna, thank you so much for linking to my post.

    Parents often wonder why their children have difficulty listening and paying attention when they enter grade school, but don’t put two and two together. When we treat infants and toddlers as if they aren’t aware and don’t understand we train them to “tune out”.

    Toddlers are extremely sensitive and easily overwhelmed. When we expose them to inappropriate, confusing and disturbing language and visuals, especially TV and movies, they learn to NOT pay attention. Tuning out is basic survival. Unfortunately, it affects their learning abilities later on. Instead, we should encourage sensitivity and awareness by protecting it. Sensitivity is inconvenient when we want to enjoy a movie with our children or talk in front of them as if they don’t exist, but it’s well worth preserving.

    Great topic and post.

  7. Great Post! When Ciaran was born none of my friends had experience with a baby so this is something I encountered a lot. But it did not stop there. They also forget that there is a baby sleeping next door etc. and have to be reminded of that.
    I did have a different approach on swearwords. I did not use a lot of “bad” words as I was alone with the baby most of the time. But when I dropped something it was hard not to shout out “fuck”. Which at that time was not considered worse than the german translation of “shit” as this still was a bit of a “foreign swearword”. When I realised that I had a hard time controlling it when I e.g. hurt myself I sat down with my son as soon as he could understand and told him what kind of word it is. Sort of like “it’s something I say when I am really really angry with myself”. As my son NEVER was that angry with himself he never felt the need to use it.
    In kindergarden he learnt all sorts of bad words and by that time I had decided to talk to him about it. In my opinion it is important for the child to understand WHY we do not use such words. For us it worked very well. My son comes home with a new word, I ask him if he knows what it means and he usually doesn’t use it again as soon as he does. Mind you, that does not mean that I explain these words in detail. A “whore” is more like a girl that “kisses everybody even if she doesn’t like them”. We talked about it sort of like “adults think these are very hurtful words, they are not for fun” and he does understand that.
    Yes, kids want to call each other names, but they usually do not truly want to hurt the other.
    But … that does not mean that I would want him to see my friends using any of them. That would be counterproductive to this sort of education.

    Thank you for this post.

  8. Fantastic post. The hubs and I go back and fourth with this one often. The “she doesn’t understand what I’m saying” arguement drives me up the wall (actually, it makes my blood boil sometimes!) and it’s his defense every time he slips up by saying a hurtful and/or inappropriate word or statement around our duaghter.

    Now that she’s saying more words, signing more, pointing and/or seeking objects out that we’re talking about it’s finally starting to sink into him that little ears DO hear even if it’s something *he thinks* that she “doesn’t understand”.

  9. I usually have the same reaction to someone’s language as i do to my son falling down…quick and instinctual. I quickly say “watch it!” just like I would quickly run to save my son from an injury. Not caring to much if I offend someone or seemingly over react…I would rather that than the opposite, a child who has taken in something harmful to their ears/minds/hearts or hurt themselves physically. Same thing as far as I’m concerned.
    And thankfully my husband reacts the same way. And with the holidays and so many gatherings of people happening, it has definitely been relevant.

    great blog post!

  10. Elena

    I’m definitely with you. I really don’t censor much unless the intention behind the words is violent or otherwise hurtful. For example, if someone stubbed their toe and said a quick swear word, that’s no biggie for us. But if someone says in all seriousness “You’re such an idiot,” to someone else, then I’m going to lose my mind. For us it’s all about the meaning and purpose behind what’s being said, and it sounds like your house guest was creating a negative atmosphere with the words he was using, and that’s definitely something to curtail.

  11. Maman A Droit   MamanADroit

    I totally agree. My standard is whether my son would be reasonably capable of hearing, not whether he appears to be actively listening. I personally never cuss but Hubby does when angry (esp if driving) so we’ve talked a bit about what words we think are okay around kids. His standards are looser than mind, but we both agree that bad language around kiddos is not cool.

  12. Sometimes my mother will say to my 5 year old son, “are you bored?”
    Ack! That is one word I do not want him to learn (nor stupid or dumb, which inexplicably can be found in many children’s books).

  13. Well I’ll be a voice of dissent. :) I think it is perfectly reasonable to ask people whatever it is you want to ask them regardless of where you are. But I’m not fussed about my kids hearing so-called swear words. I have never been able to find a real honest-to-goodness reason why the words are taboo. And given that not too terribly long ago gosh, darn, or dang were words worthy of getting your mouth washed out with soap… I just can’t bring myself to place a lot of value or emotional value on words that are not directly insulting another person. (To give an example I don’t really care if a kid says “my @$$hole hurts” but I really wouldn’t think it was cool to call someone that as a name. Make sense?

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      I don’t think you’re in dissent! With respect to what happened to spark this post, the person was calling things/people “stupid” and “idiots.” I don’t make a big deal over curse words either (although we don’t use them much ourselves, nor do I want someone cussing like a sailor around Kieran), but these words were being used in a hurtful manner. That’s where I draw the line. There’s definitely a difference (in my opinion) between colorful language and language that is used to hurt feelings of others.

      • Absolutely! So my two year old has the (occasionally cringe-inducing because I’m well aware society doesn’t approve) opportunity to use the word ‘fuck’. She does it quite skillfully and appropriately “Oh fuck! I just hit my head!” And then she starts crying. But she absolutely knows that it’s not ok to call someone a butthead. It’s a bit weird. She will tell adults that it’s not ok to call people names while already being a cusser. She is extremely compassionate and empathetic about stuff that might be mean or hurtful in the slightest. It’s like my own little petri dish that swearing is not always about being aggressive/mean/hurtful. :D

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