Name Calling & Bad Language in Preschoolers

Parent Q&A

  • We are parents of twin boys, getting close to 5 years old. A few months ago they seem to have suddenly learned the word “stupid”, it quickly became the word of choice as soon as they were frustrated, mad or just wanted to assert themselves (which is often in daily twin competition). “Brother is stupid.” “Mommy/daddy is stupid.” We keep talking about how words hurt and how that makes someone feel. We give time out or take away “fun” things if they won’t stop saying it. To be honest, I don’t know if it is really working. We have been more successful with curbing “potty/poop talk” at the dinner table, but they are just being silly in those moments - not mad/frustrated as they are when they are saying someone is “stupid”. Has anyone dealt with and somehow conquered this phase of behavior or have parenting resources you would suggest?

    So there are probably many ways of handling this and you'll have to find one that feels right to you. I will confess that recently I've gotten into Janet Landsbury's Unruffled podcast on respectful parenting. One of the things she suggests (if I'm representing her correctly) is actually not making a big thing of behaviors like this but going a little deeper to recognize the emotion. So if it were my kid, I might not even address the fact that my child called me stupid but instead say, "Yeah, I hear you are feeling mad at me right now for making you leave your toys to eat dinner. That is frustrating. You were having a lot of fun playing and you didn't want to stop."  You don't need to "fix" the feeling, just to recognize it and give it space to be. Landsbury's point is that once you make a big deal of something by talking it through extensively and giving consequences, you run the risk of actually making it more of a "thing." If you still feel compelled, you could probably add a simple, "We don't call each other names in our family" and leave it at that. If a harmful behavior comes up, like hitting, you might again keep calm, intervene physically to hold your child's hand back gently (hopefully before they make physical contact) and just say something like, "I hear you are really upset about your brother grabbing your toy, but I can't let you hit. I'm going to help you keep your hands to yourself."

    Anyway, my description isn't much of a substitute for listening to Landsbury herself, but if you are all interested, I do recommend the podcast - it's really great to hear her own words and phrases in her own voice. She also has a couple of books and a blog.

    I hope you get some advice that helps one way or another. Good luck!

Archived Q&A and Reviews


''Stupid'' talk from 5 year old

Jan 2015

My son just turned 5 and has been engaging in a lot of ''stupid'' talk as of late: ''I'm so stupid'' or calling his younger brother, Dad or me stupid. For a while I ignored it thinking it would pass. But it hasn't and now it's driving me crazy. He calls me stupid when he's angry at me, yet also uses that word other times (during self-talk) and tells his 2 year old brother that he's stupid. Though I don't like it, I'm not so concerned with him calling himself stupid because I think that he knows he isn't. He's a bright kid (he's a pretty good reader), for what it's worth. On that note, he's an avid Calvin and Hobbes comic fan and reads it constantly, and ''stupid'' is definitely part of the lexicon. I've told him that calling others stupid is unkind and can be hurtful. He's lost dessert a few times for repeatedly calling me that name (please, no negative comments or judgement on my choice of consequence). I realize I can't make him stop saying it but I'd love to hear suggestions and tips on how to handle this. Thanks! stupid is as stupid does

I felt compelled to respond because I have a 6-year-old girl who loves Calvin and Hobbes as well. As in, she has read one of our eight books of it daily for the past 6 months. And there is a lot of language in there that we won't let her use herself. First, I try to explain that each family has their own rules about what's okay to say and in our family, it's not okay for us to use the word ''stupid.'' Those are our rules and she has to abide by them. Second, we use 1-2-3 Magic as our system for stopping behaviors/language we don't like. There's a book and there's a video to learn this system, both available at the library, by the way.

The basic idea is if she says ''stupid,'' (or any other unsavory language) we say, ''That's one.'' You can say, ''That's one for language,'' to clarify, but do not explain any more than that. If she keeps it up, she gets a ''That's two,'' then a ''That's three.'' After that, she gets a time out--for your son that would be a 5-minute time out because he's 5 years old. We call it a ''Take 5,'' instead of a time out. If you do this every time he starts up, he'll quickly get the point that you mean it when you say he can't use certain words. The true trick of all of this is just not to overexplain any of it. If he looks confused, tell him in a single sentence why you're counting him.

I think the efficacy of this will depend on your child's personality. For us it works because our daughter does a lot of testing and the counting is a succinct way of telling her we really mean she needs to cut it out. The more we ramble on about something, the more she takes things personally and feels like we're criticizing her and we're definitely not trying to do that, just trying to steer her to a nicer way of talking. --works for us

You say that you want no negative comments about your choice of punishments, but the punishment does not fit the crime. You are never going to solve the problem if you are not willing to make adjustments in this area. For a small infraction like the use of an ugly word, you need an immediate and small punishment. I suggest time-out. Explain the change to your child, and then use timeout quickly every time you hear an ugly word for just a minute or two. Hopefully this will solve the problem quickly. A bigger punishment too far removed from the time of crime is just not going to work. Anon

3 year old calling Mom ''stupid''

March 2009

I am sure this is normal, but what on earth do I do? We have a very peaceful home and do not use that word to each other. He clearly picked it up at school. I have been deadly serious with him when he says it and put him in time out until he is willing to apologize (and say that if he does it again, I will start taking away toys). What to do? j

We're in the middle of the same thing. My daughter also uses a lot of potty language. (Don't know if she picked that up at school too or if most children figure that one out on their own.) I can't tell you if what we're doing will work, but I can share our approach. With the potty language, I ignore it. Clearly she's doing it for attention/reaction, and I deprive her of any reaction by ignoring the language (and her) while she's talking that way. As for ''stupid'', I'm combining ignoring it (to eliminate satisfaction with getting a reaction) with also letting her know we don't like the word. I figure she's learning lots of new things at school, some nice and some not so nice, and she doesn't know ahead of time what's acceptable to us and what's not. But I try not to make a big deal out of it because it seems like that'll just provide incentive to say it more (like the potty talk). So I usually remind her we don't like that word, that's not a nice word, and then ignore her if she keeps using it. My personal feeling is reacting too strongly is just giving the word power, whereas not reacting is defusing the power of the word and making it less fun or exciting to say. Sarah

Just wait until you see what he picks up at school when he gets older! The best tact I've found for dealing with undesirable language is simply communicating your values up front: ''that word hurts people's feelings, can you think of something nice to say?'' and then ignoring it completely from there. I think the timeouts give the word more power, and creates a lot of fascination around using it. It will drop out of favor, I promise you! It might be helpful for you to read the book ''Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys.'' It puts a lot of this behavior, which you're only seeing the beginning of, in context. I've found it immensely helpful in dealing with my sons. Been there!

I would start asking him what that word means to him and have a discussion. I think when you make something deadly serious and taboo for a three year old it just makes them curious and want to do it more - the whole pushing your buttons thing. Talk about how sad it makes you feel and it's a word that really hurts peoples feelings. Maybe ask if kids at school use the word with him and go on to say how important it is to tell whoever is calling him that or using that word in general - it's not a nice thing to say. I think doing all this without a long winded lecture is good - you don't want to bore him and turn you off. That's what I do with my daughter - she's four. We just talk about why some words are hurtful. Good luck. np

Sorry for your troubles. It sounds like you're being very consistent and firm! Fabulous. The only thing i would suggest is to take a step back and talk to him about it when he's not saying it. Maybe a peaceful moment while working with playdough, etc. You may be doing this, you didn't say, but this can be helpful. Compassionately tell him how you feel when he says that, how would he feel, etc. Then if it happens again, calmly remind him that he is being very hurtful, and he will have a time out now. You want him to learn to not do this before he hurts other people. He may change his habit with some heart to heart. Good luck, been there

I think that kids start using words as they learn them to experiment. I think you might be being to hard on him (and I am pretty strict and all). I would recommend you stop reacting to the word by forcing him to apologize. Instead, I would just keep telling him that we don't use that word; we don't say it, etc. Try reflecting his feelings if he's angry and give him another way to express it. Tell him that he shouldn't call people names. I would just keep at it. Don't accept it, but I think at this age, it's hard for them to relate the time out and the apologies to what they are actually doing. mom of a spirited little experimenter

I think talking to your son and taking things away may be the way to go on this one. Make sure the things you take away are big things so he really understands the consequences of this one. If there is some sort of activity that he does ( a sport, or a play date, or favorite tv show) that he loves and hates to miss, take that away. It sounds like he just doesn't understand that stupid is a ''bad word''. I think the bearenstein bears have a book on name calling, which may be good to read to him also or some other book on name calling so he understands that it hurts peoples feelings. Sometimes books have a way of explaining things to kids so they understand, when us parents are not able to get our points across. I would also talk to the school to see if they are giving timeouts (or whatever their method of discipline) if they hear the kids say stupid. The school should not be allowing the kids to be using that sort of language. Good luck. Laura

I also have a 3 year old and we have similar issues--different words. Remember that at 3 years old children don't really have an idea of what words mean and words that get a big reaction have the most power. What we do when my son uses a word that we don't want him to use is to briefly let him know that it's not a friendly word and then really really minimize the attention that it gets when he uses it. If we're home and he's calling me the word or wandering around using it, I often just completely ignore it and then try to distract or re-engage him. I also comment on times when he is using friendly words. If it's really bothering me or if we have others around in the house, I just say calmly ''if you want to use that word, please go to your room and close the door to say it. When you're done saying it, you can come back and be with the rest of us.'' I think that by doing a lot of talking about it and giving him a Time Out, you're giving a whole lot of power to that word and he'll know it's a way to get you riled up! Ignore!

Excessive potty talk in 2 year old?

Dec 2006

My daughter just turned 2 and talks A LOT about penis and poo poo. We told her about genitalia when she was curious about daddy's penis a few months ago. Since then she frequently says, ''I have penis!'' or ''Daddy has penis!'' Last night, while singing her good night song about the people that love her, she added in, ''Daddy's penis loves you.'' She sometimes talks about her ''gina'' or mommy's ''gina'' as well. She also talks a lot about ''poo poo'' including drawing pictures of it. We are worried that we introduced these words/concepts too soon and are unsure how to react to these comments. Is it normal for a 24-month-old to talk so much about penises? Thanks for any advice Anon

Perfectly normal. My daughter LOVED to talk like that endlessly at that age. At 4, she still gets a kick out of potty talk. Most kids do. Your jobs at this age are probably to: 1) get used to it and 2) gently teach your toddler what's appropriate and not appropriate in public. Try not to make a huge deal over it, as it's just as fun to get a reaction from parents! (and you don't necessarily want conversation to be seen as ''bad.'') Same thing with exploring her own body (which our child now understands is something not to be done in public). You can crack up about it with your spouse and friends (not in earshot of your child, though, since she may be embarassed!)

I know these things are NOT a laughing matter when they are yours to deal with, but I couldn't help laughing at your post!! I TOO am having a similar experience although I am dealing with twin 2 year olds (boy and girl). They LOVE talking about '''He' has a penis'', '''She''' has a vagina'', ''hold your penis down when you pee'', ''mommy goes peepee and poo poo'', ''mommy has vagina, daddy has penis.... and on and on and on.

They are in love with their little bodies and their functions and often at what we would consider inappropriate times (dinner table, with company, in public...etc). My reaction is ''this will pass'' although we are sort of the family that talks and laughs about farting etc.... so maybe not.

Its new and they need to be a little obsessed with it all or potty training will be difficult. At some point I think discussing privacy would be appropriate, but its probably a bit early for that. Just know that others are going through it/have gone through it and most people on the street will just pass it off as a child's age-appropriate behaviour....And if they don't, they can just focus their energies on the adults using profanity at every turn of the head as they walk down the street! nancy

I think it's normal. My older kid (4) was and continues to be the same way. They're obsessed. As your child gets older and if it continues you can put some limitations on it if it makes you uncomfortable - IE, we don't talk potty talk at the dinner table, or only in the bathroom or whatever. I'm sure someone with more knowledge about psychology or the developmental stages of children can tell you why, but most kids LOVE this stuff. It just cracks them up. I really don't think it has anything to do with what you and your husband have told her. anonymous

Swearing 2.5 year old

June 2002

I've checked the archives, but there's not a lot of entries on this subject. What is the appropriate way to respond to and discourage swearing in a 2.5 year old? Initially I ignored it, but my son's use is becoming more frequent. Usually just as a sing-song word not in any particular context, but sometimes he will shock us with ''appropriate'' use or phrasing. And if one starts with ''Use that word and you get a time out'' how do you enforce that if you're in the grocery store or driving somewhere? It's also difficult since one overhears it constantly from other adults in public (though I know his initial exposure was from one parent...), and now other children of all ages in the playground. I'm keen to start on the right path ASAP! Thanks! Embarrassed mom

I think I would not move to the ''time out'' method here; I think I would use a more focused ignoring technique (kids end up being ignored a lot -- he may not understand that you don't want him to use those words). I think I would tell him, very calmly, ''That word is not appropriate, I don't want you to use it,'' or whatever, and then say ''When you use that word, I don't enjoy talking to you.'' Then ignore him for a specified (short, 1-2 minute) period of time. No talking, no interaction of any kind if you can avoid it. In the store, maybe turn away and pretend to study the shelves or something. The point being first to make sure he knows you disapprove, and second to take away any and all attention -- the thing two-year-olds like best. Karen

I'm not sure if this trick will work for all children, but it seemed to work for mine. I learned from his daycare providers that bad words are ''bathroom words.'' When a child at the daycare woul use profanity, they would say ''that is a bathroom word, so, if you must use that word, please do it in the bathroom.'' I worked with my son on this, and I think it taught him that use of certain words and phrases are only appropriate in certain times and situations. (It DID make for a few funny public bathroom stories!!) Now that he is older (13) , we allow him to use profanity in the house because it does not offend us(though not as a put down). We have explained to him that profanit yis not appropriate in school or in public because it can offend people, and therefore, it's off limits outside of the home. He hasn't always gotten it right-- sometimes there were reports of bad language at school-- but , with a little reindforcement, I think he has the concept down. Anonymous

We experienced the same thing recently... also a result of hearing a parent say it. My son's (also 2.5 yrs. old) word of choice was damn it (not so horrible, but also one that seemed inappropraite for a 2.5 year old to say). The interesting part was that he always seemed to use it in context (when frustrated)! I just kind of made up my response on the spot. First I told him that that was not a nice word and he shouldn't say it, etc. etc. He proceeded to let loose a veritable river of damn its just to test me. I didn't react much. I got out a timer and told him he could say the word as much as he wanted for the next 1 minute (or 2... whatever you choose) in order to get it out of his system, but then after that we weren't going to say damn it anymore. Then I gave him a substitute word. I told him that while it wasn't okay to say damn it, he could say oh drat.

Since then, he has repeated damn it on occasion, sometimes to test me again, and sometimes because he forgets. When I remind him to say drat, he quickly adopts that. Now, even drat is fading out but we always have it ready and waiting for those moments when he gets really frustrated. I think the key is to give him something he CAN say that will allow him to express his emotions at that moment. Good luck. Kira

I agree with the posters who suggested giving the child a substitute word. We liked ''Rats!'' which caught on nicely (our child watches Peanuts videos which helps). You have to use it yourself, too. Now I'm dealing with him giving people the ''finger'' (he just happened on this and discovered it provokes a good reaction). Fran

3 Year Old Using the Word Stupid

Our otherwise entirely happy grounded 3 3/4 yr old son has developed the following pattern: calling everyone, mostly himself, Stupid. It often goes like this, Honey, please help me put these toys away that you were playing with. Mommy, you're stupid. Honey, let's try to find another way to say what you're feeling. and then he pauses and says, I'm stupid. Which he'll say several times several times throughout the day. To which I say over and over, What are you feeling, or Honey, you're too smart to be stupid, etc. It certainly happens when he's frustrated but not exclusively.

His dad has much less patience in this department than I do (both for being called stupid and for our son calling himself stupid). Is this a phase? He does definitely know what he's talking about and did not choose the word indiscriminately. His older sister never went through anything like this. This could just be something picked up a pre-school. I'd like to help us get through this and over this. It's pretty wearying at this point. Thanks for any ideas or perspective.

I don't think most preschool-aged kids are that good at verbalizing their feelings, so saying things like What are you feeling? may be ineffective at this tender age. I sympathize with your esire to discourage the use of certain words, including stupid. The general advice I've heard is to not make a big deal out of it. When kids find out that it pushes our buttons, they may end up using such words just to get our attention or to push the limits. So I've learned to sometimes express disapproval of stupid and other more objectionable words, but I try to ignore it or at least be very low-key. I *do* think if kids call *themselves* stupid, especially at older ages (mine is 6), there's a need to give them positive responses about how they're *not* stupid, for their self-esteem. But I wouldn't worry too much about it with most 3-4-year-olds.

2 3.4-year old hitting and name-calling

On name calling: we were told by other parents that using swearwords is mostly done to get a reaction, and so we handled the name calling in the way that was recommended for swearing. We told him that what he said was mean and could hurt peoples' feelings and then we let it go.


This is a response to Laurie, who is concerned about her 2-3/4 yr. son who is hitting, kicking, and name-calling.

You mentioned that you have been dealing with this by ignoring the negative behavior. While there is some evidence that ignoring bad behavior will eventually extinguish it, I found that this was not always the case. Sometimes ignoring it had the opposite effect--i.e. the negative behavior escalated.

I don't think there's a rule for how to deal with this--it depends on the child. You might try to restrain your son when he is abusing pets or other children and explain (calmly) that this is not an appropriate social behavior. Encourage him to express anger verbally, but don't tolerate verbal or physical abuse--and please don't ignore it. There are no guarantees about the outcome, but I think it's important that he understand that he shouldn't treat others this way. If you ignore him, he will not necessarily know that it's because he is hitting the puppy (or another child). I hope this helps. Good luck!


We also never tolerated name calling by our children. Even though they are too young to understand the meaning behind the words, they can get the message that certain words should not be used (like stupid or jerk) with their parents or with anyone else. If they say something they shouldn't (and this is true today when our kids are 10 and 12), we make it very clear that it's not to be said again. When they are toddlers, they know by tone of voice (we used the strong, parental, deep-voice tone and said No! ) This would often reduce the child to tears, but we knew we got the point across. We would then hug the child, and say something like We love you, but you can't talk like that...or can't hit the dog....making it clear what our disciplinary tone was about. As they got older, time-outs worked. And now, loss of privileges is effective in getting our point across. But we never stop telling them how much we love them and what the reasons are for our actions.

My husband and I believe (and it seems to have worked) that once children start walking and talking, even though they don't fully understand the ramifications of what they're doing or the meaning or impact of what they're saying, that they're not too young to start understanding limits. Through positive and negative feedback, and lots of love, they can learn to respect their pets, playmates and Parents! It's not fun living with a child who talks back, says naughty words, or who can't be trusted with a beloved pet. And you also want him to start responding to your voice and taking you seriously....because one day it may stop him from running into the street and getting hit by a car!


4 yr old's ''potty mouth''

June 2003

Like most pre-schoolers my almost 4 year old son loves to call us names and use inappropriate language like...''poopy butt'', ''poopy head'' and every variation you could imagine. Luckily, it doesn't get worse than that (we are careful about what we say in front of him). First, we let him know that the words are impolite and inappropriate. We've told him it hurts our feelings. We've discussed the problem with his pre-school teacher b/c that is where he picked it up, and were not given much help. We've taken a few privileges away when it's gotten really bad. I'm now trying to ignore the language and hope it goes away. An endless stream of ''poopy'' this and that flows out of his mouth night and day, in public and private places, constantly. Will this fascination ever go away? It is annoying and embarrassing. Any advice is well appreciated Maya

Welcome to the club! Poopy head, dummit, ''degan budi'' (a Hungarian-English amalgam) are just some of the words our almost 4-year old has blessed this household with lately. Unfortunately, this issue is compounded by Daddy's tendency to say idiot (or worse) when he is cut off on the road. We tried to halt theese embarassing public displays by introducing the distinction between public and private e.g. for toilets, bathrooms, tables and words. Interestingly, our daughter rarely uses these words at home now--she prefers to share them with her 8 year nemesis ''Charlie'' across the courtyard. I think these words are about power (cf. Brazelton). We have it; she doesn't. I struggle with teaching her not to use these words when she's being teased. Isn't it better to use her (potty?) words than fists to deal with aggression? I am not advocating free speech for four year olds--we repress her all the time. But it's complicated. Bad words are so tied up with power, gender, class, and other cultural questions. (Good girls from educated families don't speak that way). I am just glad to be a parent who can censor poopy head without having to think too hard about it for now. The teenage years promise more censorship and more consequences for her development in a world of poopy heads or worse.

If our 4 y.o. chooses to have a ''potty mouth'', he knows that the consequence is that he must go sit in the appropriate place to speak it (that is, in the bathroom with the potty). So when I hear him say ''poopy head, etc.'', I ask him if he would like to go to the bathroom himself or if he needs my help. After a couple short stints in the bathroom, he almost always catches himself now and stops the language. It's not a punishment, just the consequence of using potty language. It worked for us.
''No more potty mouth''

I'm really surprised that the pre-school wasn't more helpful! Have you tried telling him that potty talk belongs in the potty? It's telling him that the only impact that talk will have is that he can do it alone - no audience. However, I can also imagine the scenario: Child starts the talk, you say calmly and firmly ''only in the bathroom'' and child says ''no'', and then you're in a different struggle... But I do believe that a neutral, disinterested, fine - but not here, attitude will prevail.

You might also try talking about good attention and bad attention. For example, next time he starts, give him a positive choice ''you can talk like that alone in the bathroom, or stay here with me and sing songs/read a book/draw a picture''. Or surprise him with something unexpected. Don't acknowledge the talk, but distract him with a tickle, or request a hug. Something nice that will totally throw him off track - but don't let him make the connection - and hopefully the mood will brigthten and he'll forget why he started the talk in the first place.

The most effective tactic we've used is the response of ''That's potty talk and we don't use potty talk in this family.'' The '' this family'' seems to be the kicker and we use it with all undesireable behavior. It provides a sense of the ''higher ground'' toward which we strive. Good luck! rr

No advice, but funny story My sister, now 41, has had potty mouth her WHOLE life! Once on a vacation in Mendocino, my dad made her [age 5] stand on a big rock and say ''pooh-pooh'' until she couldn't talk anymore. The punishment didn't cure anything, but it is one of our favorite family stories. She had a rough adolescence, dropped out of high school, worked in pink collar jobs, and still loved to tell scatological jokes. When she was 32 she decided she was ready for college, and at 39 she received a Master's in Waste Water Management (i.e., sewage studies). Now she has a cohort that enjoys her humor!
--Penis Pantry (my sister's childhood potty name for me!)

We went throuh this too! It seemed to be worse the more I tried to stop it, so I told my daughter she could use as much ''bathroom talk'' as she wanted in the bathroom. When it started up, I'd just remind her to please go to the bathroom if she wanted to say such things, and just generaly tried to appear as unruffled as possible. She happily went to the bathroom to yell about all kinds of ''illicit'' things. It passed eventually (well mostly....certain friends still bring it out it in her....but I told them they could whisper it to each other like their own special thing and this also seemed to help. ) But basically, giving her a place/way to say these things seemed to make the appeal go away.
former poopy head

I found that my boys started the potty talk around 5 or 6 (but they never went to preschool or school) and it is abating now at about 7. Course, I'm the kind of parent who joins right in and although I don't encourage it beyond what they would normally do, I don't make an issue out of it, but have no problem joining right in when they do the poop, pee, etc. talk. Kathy