What do I not mean

“You don't say stupid cow” - swear words and their effect on children and parents

There are enough examples of insults and devaluations. Each of us has probably more than once been in a situation in which we have either used swearwords ourselves or been confronted with insults. Unfortunately, there are no vocabulary limits to the extent and power of the words used. The often heard "stupid cow", the "stupid goat" or the "stupid man" are unfortunately almost among the still harmless variants of swear words. When older children use a word like “son of a bitch”, parents and teachers rightly sound the alarm bells. A dispute about the meaning of the word used is then inevitable.

However, children are usually relatively inexperienced in this context and use swear words out of pure curiosity or because they have only just picked up the word and would like to try out its effect. They hear swear words from their parents, bigger siblings, in kindergarten and school or in the media, on television or while playing computer games. Children then often only learn in the course of their development what these words actually express and what derogatory or discriminatory meaning is associated with some words.

What makes swear words so fascinating for children?

For all parents, it is more than sweet to listen when their children speak their first few words. Parents are eagerly awaiting the first "mom" and "dad". Parents are incredibly proud when their little Lena or sweet Julius try out or discover new words. A few years later, the charm of the newly discovered words usually evaporates very quickly. At the latest when the little ones come out of kindergarten and cheerfully blast the word “ass violin” at their mother when they greet them. Jan-Uwe Rogge, a well-known education expert, describes this example vividly and amusingly in one of his lectures. He explains that children are dying to try new expressions to see how adults, and especially parents, react to them (1).

Children just love to learn new things, children nibble on chocolate from forbidden cupboards, children especially love the drawers that they are not allowed to open under any circumstances, and that's exactly why children love swear words. Swear words are surrounded by an aura of the forbidden. Children feel this very quickly.

In addition, the use of a “bad word” always provokes a reaction in adults. When I use a swear word as a child and do it loudly and clearly, I am sure that I will immediately have the fullest attention of my caregivers. That's worth a lot as a child, isn't it? Dr. Sylvia Schuster, press spokeswoman for the Federal Association of Pediatricians in North Rhine-Westphalia. She assumes that children are even incited when adults react in shock to the bad words used. Children like to provoke adults with swear words, also or precisely because they do not even know what these words mean (2).

Sometimes, however, children are tired, frustrated or angry and do not yet have adequate opportunities to channel their anger. This can happen when parents turn off the exciting children's program or want to bring their children to bed, who do not think they are tired at all. Children then “shoot” out of the affect. A "you stupid cow, mom" or a "dad, I think you shit" is unfortunately quickly said (3).

Regardless of the reasons why children use swear words, the reactions of adults are usually the same: “Where did you get this bad expression from? You don't say “stupid cow”! I don't want to hear the word “shit” at our table anymore ”.

These correct, but rather reason-driven guidelines from adults mostly fall on deaf ears with children or even incite them to use the words even more. “Why are adults allowed to say“ shit ”and we are not?” Malte also says that in kindergarten! ““ Dad always yells “idiot” in the car or “you lame snail” when someone drives too slowly in front of him ”.

Here it is important to start a conversation with the children and look for alternatives and ideas together so that everyone in the family can refrain from using swear words.

How do I deal with swear words in the family?

As is so often the case in life, parents and other close caregivers play an important role model role for children when it comes to swear words. The motto “As I scream in the forest it also echoes back” applies here completely. If parents use swear words themselves at home, when driving a car or when dealing with their children, then they shouldn't be surprised if their children do the same to them.

Therefore a first and very important tip for parents:

Check your own behavior!
Check yourself and carefully observe your behavior in stressful situations or when you are angry. Children have extremely fine antennae and ears, they like to pick up everything from adults. Be a good role model for your children and avoid swear words and unnecessary outbursts of anger yourself.
That is a big step in the right direction! Of course you can be emotional. Nevertheless, it makes sense to observe and adhere to the limits that you set for your children yourself.

Other suggestions to help avoid swear words in the family:

Invent emergency words!
Create harmless "emergency words" with your children. What is meant are funny word alternatives that can be used in the family. Just thinking about fantasy words together relieves the tension and brings you into a relationship with your children. This is a good opportunity, especially for smaller children, to "let off steam". Many funny and harmless examples such as the "blotchy nightdress quaker", the "bulging-eyed couch pillow devil" or the "boring pop-bag amphibian" can be found in the book "Das verrückte Schimpfwort-ABC" (4).

Set up cash register for swear words!
For schoolchildren, it is a good way to set up a cash register for swear words in the family (5). This is filled with a small amount of money by the children, but also by parents and visitors, as soon as a swear word is uttered. It is a good motivation here when children have to sacrifice their pocket money. The real sense behind the swear word checkout is of course to be aware of the use of swear words in the first place.

Allow abuse and rage time!
Together with your children you could set up a kind of “ranting or angry time”. During these fixed 5 minutes per day, you can really weather and let off steam once (6). This is good for some children. However, the anger should not be directed at people, but at best on a beanbag or punching bag.

Accompany watching TV!
Parents should not leave their children to watch TV programs alone. Especially with smaller children, check which programs they are watching. Sit down on the sofa with your ten-year-old and check consciously what tone of voice prevails between the young actors in films or series. The media have a strong attraction for children and they ignore a lot of it. Usually more than we adults would like.

Don't pay much attention!
Especially with kindergarten children it helps not to pay attention to the swear words you bring with you. Stay calm, don't scold or laugh. If children have no reaction to the words you use, you will get bored of using the words, at least at home.

Definitely talk about discrimination and devaluation!
Children keep picking up on words related to sexuality. The so-called "F-words" are particularly common. Parents are often very worried when their children use these words, usually without thinking about them. Discuss with your children that these words are particularly hurtful and derogatory. If your children are older, explain what these words mean, even if you and your children are embarrassed. The greater the chance that your children will then stop using these words. Don't worry too much though. Children who grow up in a healthy and stable environment tend to lose interest in these words quickly.

With younger children, it is enough to first discuss that the words are really bad and can really hurt others. Your child probably doesn't want other children to use these words against them either.

Discriminatory words such as “Behindi” or “Spasti” also aim well below the “belt” and put your children on the sidelines in the long term when using the words (7). Explain this to your children and show them what these words actually mean. Make it clear to you how children feel who are really badly ill. Under no circumstances should you tolerate these words in your home. Here it only helps to be consistent throughout and to trust that your children will become sensitive to these words in the course of their development. The same applies to words from the fecal area.

At the end of the day:
Always remember: you don't have to be perfect, and neither do your children. Above all, it is about good and appreciative interaction with one another. A "swear word slip" is by no means broken. Talk to your children when you feel angry or hurt yourself. The better you are in relationship with your children, the more you can change together.

However, if your child's swearword outbursts are accompanied by never-ending fits of anger and you keep pushing yourself to your educational limits, you should always get outside help. There is no shame in going to an educational counseling center, for example, and arranging a counseling interview. It is often a great relief to let your worries go away. It is often easier to work on solutions together with the specialists and to implement them step by step in everyday family life.


(1) Rogge, Jan-Uwe / Bartmann, Angelika: "How you talk so that your child listens & how you listen so that your child speaks". Gräfe and Unzer Verlag Munich. 5th edition 2015 (pp. 85 - 91)

(2) Schuster, Sylvia, Dr. quoted in: "When children use swear words", under http://www.kinderaerzte-im-netz.de/news-archiv/meldung/article/wenn-kinder-schimpfworte-gebrauchen/ from June 27, 2005 (accessed on March 4, 2005). 2016)

(3) Levecke, Bettina: "When children discover swear words", at http://www.starke-eltern.de/htm/archiv/artikel/02_2006/beleidigungen.htm (accessed on 03.03.2016)

(4) Brehm, Michaela: “Shit! Poop! Ass! When children use swear words ”at http://www.familie.de/kind/kinder-schimpfwoerter-538063.html
(accessed on 03.03.2016)

(5) Frantz, Anette: "Schimpfen is human" at http://www.mobile-elternmagazin.de/elvis/drucken?k_beitrag=2128487&k_onl_struktur=385569 (accessed on 04.03.2016)

(6) Levecke, Bettina: "When children discover swear words", at http://www.starke-eltern.de/htm/archiv/artikel/02_2006/beleidigungen.htm (accessed on 03.03.2016)

(7) Plagge, Silke R .: "Mist, the child flucht!", At http://www.liliput-lounge.de/themen/fluchende-kinder/ (accessed on March 22, 2016)

further reading

  • Rogge, Jan-Uwe / Bartmann, Angelika: "How you talk so that your child listens & how you listen so that your child speaks". Gräfe and Unzer Verlag Munich. 5th edition 2015
  • Nitsch, Cornelia / von Schelling, Cornelia: “Setting boundaries for children - when and how? Be consistent with love ”. Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag Munich. 8th edition March 2014
  • Schwarz, Regina / Schober, Michael: “The Crazy Abuse Words ABC”. Esslinger Verlag Stuttgart. 2010


Christina Zehetner (née Kursawe) is an educator and social worker. She has many years of practical experience in outpatient and inpatient child and youth welfare and worked for several years in the youth welfare office. The author is currently working as a freelancer at the State Institute for Early Education in Munich. As a consultant, she also holds humorous seminars and lectures for families and professionals.

Further contributions by the author can be found here in our fan guide




discontinued on April 06, 2016