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Salty Talk: When Your Kids Curse

In the early grade-school years, your child's language may suddenly become peppered with salty talk. Children this age are still learning by imitation, and if you use an occasional expletive, chances are she will, too. Kids can also pick up less-than-savory words from the school yard, summer camp, television, and movies.

Why do they do it? For one, there's magic in it. A 5-year-old quickly learns that screaming "doody head!" at the bank gets a lot of faces turned her way.

Then there's the humor factor. As kids enter elementary school, they discover that crude expressions  -- from "fart face" to real profanity  -- make peers laugh, so they may try such words at home too.

Plus, even if they don't know what some swearwords mean, children may use them as we do  -- to release anger and frustration. "It's a substitute for physical aggression," says Timothy Jay, Ph.D., author of What to Do When Your Kids Talk Dirty. To curb foul words:

Temper Your Speech

Since your child's internal tape recorder is always running, limit your expressions to "darn," "rats," or something similar. Better yet, phrase your frustration: "It makes me nuts when I can't find my keys!"

Tell It Like It Is

Sometimes, not knowing the meaning of a word keeps it mysterious and powerful, says Jerry Wyckoff, Ph.D., coauthor of How to Discipline Your Six- to Twelve-Year-Old ... Without Losing Your Mind. "Kids need to know why the words are unacceptable." For instance, you might explain to an 8-year-old that the f-word is an ugly and insulting way to describe sex.

The Name Game

Children can be vicious with their name-calling. "Besides releasing tension, calling someone stupid  -- or worse  -- feeds the need to feel superior," says Jay. Encourage your child to define what she feels instead, by saying something like, "You're making me mad" or "Stop bothering me."

Reality Check

Just when you think you've taught this lesson, your child will call her aunt "brontosaurus butt," and make you laugh. The truth is, sometimes epithets sound funny. As long as you don't let her get a giggle out of you too often, a chuckle here and there won't send the wrong message. A that's-enough look or saying "excuse me" can reset the tone.

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