Q: Our 2-year-old has learned a swear word. The first few times she said it, we thought it was cute.
But now its use is getting frequent and quite embarrassing. How can we get her to stop?
A: Your initial amusement taught your daughter the word is fun to say. She may have noticed extra emphasis the word got when one of you used it. After all, she heard it somewhere!
If you laughed and remarked on her use of the word, or even just raised your eyebrows the first time she used it, she got a reward -- attention -- which she regards as entirely positive. In fact, she keeps getting attention from everyone whenever she says it. No wonder you hear it more and more often.
To clean up your daughter's language, you have to take the fun out of saying the word. Punishment is not the answer. Punishments seem like rewards to some children, because they involve a lot of parental emotion and attention.
We have a three-step solution. If the first (and easiest) works after a few days, you don't need to go on to the next.
1. Ignore the word completely. If she says it, go on about your activities as if you didn't hear it.
2. Ignore her when she says the word. Simply turn your back to her and walk away. She'll soon learn that she loses you for a few moments whenever she says the word. She may say it even louder or more often, hoping to bring back its old effect. Keep to the plan.
3. If you're getting nowhere after a week, begin to put your daughter on a time-out chair for two minutes each time she says the word. Do that calmly, and without a lecture.
Remember you must not say words you don't want her to copy. She takes her language lessons from you.
Dr. Wilson is director of general pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins Children's Center; Dr. Joffe is director of adolescent medicine.