Care and Feeding

Should I Tell My 6-Year-Old to Stop Singing Along With the F-Bomb?

She doesn’t know what the word means yet. Will drawing attention make it worse?

A mother clutching her glasses and worrying while her daughter sings along with some music with naughty words.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by SIphotography/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Choreograph/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 6-year-old daughter really loves a current popular music group that uses the F-word in a couple of its songs. In one song, the word’s used as substitute for the phrase “messed up.” In another song, it refers to having sex. She sings along to both songs, and I’m not sure if I should tell her it’s a grown-up word she shouldn’t be using, or if drawing her attention to it will make her want to use it at times other than when she’s singing these lyrics that she doesn’t understand, since for 6-year-olds I know it’s sometimes exciting to break the rules.

—Wary of the F-Bomb

Dear Wary,

When my daughter was your daughter’s age, she somehow had gotten the impression that fuck was a “poetry word” (like o’er or twas—or, since it was 1999, not 1799, liminal or iridescent). I say “somehow” but I know how: It was because I taught, as I still do, in a creative writing program at a university. I had to go to poetry readings all the time, and I’d almost always bring her with me, both because I liked her company and because I’d found that—surprisingly—she enjoyed them. (She liked the fuss people made over her, and she liked watching and listening to any kind of performance.)

But I digress, as is my wont.

The point is, she heard the word fuck a lot when graduate students read their poems. She never heard it outside that specific situation. Neither her father nor I have ever been big cursers, so it wasn’t something we were inclined to drop into conversations that she might have overheard. To her, the word was really just like nevermore or dappled. What I’m saying is: If your daughter only hears and uses the word as a song lyric, I’d just (speaking of song lyrics) let it go.

But I’d be remiss if I didn’t say something about “bad words” and what we teach our children about them more generally. For my part, I made a decision early on to teach my daughter that there was no such thing as a “bad” word—that words are neutral in and of themselves. Like rocks, I told her (even the biggest and sharpest of rocks, as long as they’re on the ground). They can be used to hurt someone only when used against that person. I also let her know that sometimes a rock picked up idly and tossed without purpose—hand to hand, or into the sky—can hurt someone too, so we need always to think about what we hold in our hands before releasing it. And that some words are so laden with potential harm that they should never be aimed or idly tossed. For us, fuck wasn’t one of them.

I’ll say one more thing about fuck before I close. (I’m sure I have never before invoked this word so many times in a row.) When my daughter was 8 years old, a boy in her class shouted “Fuck!” at another boy and got in trouble for it. Naturally, she had questions. One was something she had never asked before. She wanted to know what the word actually meant. And when I told her, she gasped: “Well, that’s a very private thing. Why is anybody talking about that in public?”

Dear Care and Feeding,

I could use some advice on how to encourage my 4-year-old’s interest in other languages while steering her away from microaggressions. Our library has a lot of great books about non-American cultures. But since we read The Name Jar, about a Korean girl who moves to America and decides to use her Korean name at school, my daughter will say, “That’s my name in Korean!” whenever she scribbles something. I asked a friend to write out for me the actual Korean character for her name, and I’ve shown it to my daughter, but she’s not interested in trying to write that.

If she hears a language other than English on the playground, she’ll approach the people speaking and ask, “What language are you speaking?” She’s cute and friendly, and so far this has been met with either cheerful incomprehension or, recently, an adorable Spanish lesson.

My husband and I are white, and our only language is English. We try to read her diverse stories, and I talk to her about how languages work around the world, but I guess I’m looking for some positive ways to encourage her interest while respecting other people and cultures. If I need to nip these behaviors in the bud, how do I approach it?

—Mother of a Microagressor?

Dear MoaM,

I don’t think your child is exhibiting microaggressive behavior. I think she’s calling her scribbles “Korean writing” because she’s working out an idea that’s new to her (i.e., ordinary 4-year-old behavior) and at the same time doing what children do when a book enchants them—playing at being the character in the book, trying on another self for size. Your smart, curious child is trying to figure out what it means to be in and of the great big world.

Which she is also doing when she walks up to strangers and asks them what language they’re speaking. I don’t think this is inappropriate at her age, and I wouldn’t nip it in the bud, either. Children are curious; they ask a lot of questions. Most adults know that. If they’re hanging around in a playground, they have children themselves and are accustomed to it.

If she asks and the response is “cheerful incomprehension,” that’s an opportunity for you to point out to her that not everyone she meets will understand or speak the language she speaks. That, in fact, English is just one language among a great many that are spoken in the world. And since she’s expressing so much curiosity about this right now, you might seize the moment to consciously expose her to many different languages and cultures. It’s not too early for her to begin to learn other languages herself. It might be fun for both of you to read together not only books about other cultures but books that teach vocabulary in other languages. A cursory search for “bilingual picture books” on the evil giant Amazon just netted me more than 3,000 titles. I bet your library has some of them.

If you missed Monday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

We have a bright, energetic, imaginative, and kind 3-year-old. She is the actual best kid. But recently, bedtime has turned into an epic struggle.

She has been a champion sleeper since she was a few months old, but we transitioned to a toddler bed from her crib a few months ago. There was an adjustment period, but then things seemed normal again—until recently. Every night, she goes to bed at 8 with a consistent bedtime routine, but then we spend the next two to three hours watching her enact dramas with her stuffed animals, answering calls for the bathroom, walking her back to bed when she gets up, and finding her sitting silently outside our bedroom door in the dark (terrifying). She wakes up between 5:30 and 6 every morning, sometimes joining us to sleep a bit more in our bed, sometimes ready to start her day. She still naps a couple of hours a day and is in a wonderful day care full time, where she is busy and active.

We don’t do screen time before bed, we don’t have sugar in the evening, and we are kind but firm when we walk her back to her room every time. We have tried star charts, bribes, consequences, and one of those lights that turns green when it is time to get up. Nothing works. Are we doing something wrong? Does she need to give up her nap, even though I feel she still needs it? How is she not exhausted when she’s on a sleep schedule more appropriate for a (tired) adult? I feel myself getting frustrated that this is turning our few hours of quiet grown-up time in the evenings into extended periods of nightly vigilance.

—I Just Want Her to Stay in Bed!

Dear IJWHtSiB,

Of course she needs to give up her nap! I cannot imagine why you feel she still needs it, since she’s telling you loud and clear that she does not. There’s no law that says a 3-year-old needs to nap. My kid gave up her nap shortly after she turned 2 and it made life better for all of us. Not only did bedtime become much more pleasant, but it meant that when we planned fun outings, we didn’t have to work around a midday nap. You have a child, just as I did, who simply doesn’t need as much sleep as many others her age do.

You and your partner, on the other hand, need those few hours of quiet time in the evening, which you shall now get back. Enjoy them.

Dear Care and Feeding,

We have a delightful 27-month-old, “Joey,” who is a super talker. He also has an active, age-appropriate imagination. A few weeks ago, we used a new sitter, “Julie,” who is also my best friend’s live-in au pair, so she was highly recommended! The night went fine by all accounts. The next morning, I asked Joey pretty standard questions about Julie—Did you have fun with her? Did you like playing with her? Do you want her to come back?—and received positive answers. Then the next day at breakfast, out of the blue, he spontaneously said, “Joey is bad.” When I asked him why he’d said this, he told me that Julie had told him that. I don’t know what to make of this. He doesn’t lie—I’m regaled every day with tales of who got pushed on the playground (which our nanny always confirms). When he makes up stories, it’s pretty obvious (as in, I know he didn’t “ride a big airplane” that day). We’re having Julie back to sit again. Should I ask her about this? Assume something got lost in translation and let it go? Talk to Joey about telling the truth?

—Who’s Bad???

Dear WB,

I’m mystified by the fact that you didn’t ask him why Julie said it at the time he reported it to you. It sounds like he’s the kind of 2-year-old who could tell you all about it.

But now that weeks have passed, it would be weird to ask him. It would be still weirder—it would be dreadful—to give him a talking-to about “telling the truth” when you have no idea what the truth is. If you’re having Julie back, you must have decided that this wasn’t a big deal—that even if she did say what Joey reported, you can live with it. After all, he said he wanted her to come back. Maybe she said this in a joking way (“Ooh, you are being so bad, you little rascal!”) as she chased him into his pajamas, and he ran from room to room.

But maybe he misunderstood something else she said. Or maybe she did say it in a serious, scolding way, and while it seems this didn’t trouble Joey, you feel strongly that this isn’t something you want a sitter saying to your kid. Still, I wouldn’t ask her about this now, right before she sits for him again. I’d wait and see what Joey has to say the morning after this next time. A 2-year-old who can tell you about what happens on the playground and make up wild adventures is certainly capable of telling you what transpires between him and his babysitter. Listen to what he says and ask follow-up questions, and if anything doesn’t sound right to you, find another sitter.

And congratulations on your super talker. They make life interesting, don’t they?


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