Repeat after me? Um, no.

My son was 2, approaching 3, when he made what is still one of his most iconic declarations. We were trying out Guitar Hero on the Wii and it was his turn to muddle through Pat Benatar. 

In Pull-Ups, no less, he strapped on the faux guitar and turned to me: “Mama, I’m gonna rock this and you better f***ing clap.”

So many emotions, Toddler Parent — just so many. 

Horror, shock, panic, bemusement and — if I’m honest — just a wee bit of pride, because he really did use every word quite appropriately, with proper emphasis and placement. The moment was funny and sad and — clearly — memorable. 

  • Where did it start?

I’ve never had what you might call the proverbial “mouth of a truck driver.” There are certain words that are off limits and generally speaking, I don’t delight in vulgar talk or humor. 

Somewhere in my 20s, however, I developed a nasty habit of using the F-bomb as an adjective or a quasi-adverb (see above about how you’d better clap). Maybe because, at the time, I studied creative writing and was told that the word “very” was very, very bad. Maybe I — you know — needed an alternative?

I can make excuses for myself (and for my son’s dad and grandma and neighbors for that matter), but the truth is — we’re all human. We’re hasty with words, sometimes. We swear, sometimes. We like to swear, sometimes. 

I know I’m not the first person this has happened to, nor will I be the last. I know, also, that I’m not the first parent — in the face of a tiny little toddler cursing — to mistakenly laugh or overreact or some crazy combination of the two, thus making the taboo word spectacularly FUN.  

After reacting in this way (like a big, wildly entertaining spaz) you might find yourself hearing the F-word only about 9,000 times more than you’ve said it in your whole lifetime and might just find yourself spiraling through different strategies — lectures, time-outs, ignoring and fun alternatives to the bad word (aka the point of desperation). I’m gonna rock this and you better farting clap? Flubbing clap? Washing the old mouth out with soap? (OK, but only the all-natural organic kind — you know, the blueberry scent he likes?)


  • And it gets even trickier

The truth is, a swear word is really only the tip of the iceberg. As your wee one reaches toddlerhood, something sounds the alarm: They’re listening, they’re watching, they’re repeating. 

You realize it’s not just about what you say, but also about what goes down in the privacy of your own home. Because toddlers have no filter, they’ll tell all the world about:

• How Daddy has to wax his back once a week, because he’s hairy like a gorilla.

• How Mom doesn’t really want to have Thanksgiving at Grandma’s, because her turkey is dry and, besides, Mom has plans for Black Friday.

• How that girl, Natalie, down the street isn’t allowed to come play because she’s obnoxious and out of control. 

Yes, Toddler Parent, your children will mimic your ugliest behaviors, share your secrets and air your dirty laundry. 

And when you blush and shush and stammer and apologize, they’ll become curious about said reactions and begin to experiment with cause and effect when it comes to those little embarrassments and naughty words. 

In hopes of figuring out what makes you tick, they’ll try these things out again. And again. This is a certainty. 

They’ll also notice — no pressure — how you care for yourself, how you view your body, how you hold yourself in the face of adversity.

  • What can you do now?

It doesn’t hurt to conduct a harmless audit of what you might not want your child repeating. 

Be mindful. 

While you’re not supposed to be perfect, care in what you say around your kids will at least ameliorate some unwanted embarrassment and perhaps make you feel more in control.

Beyond that, discipline and non-reaction are both options, depending on your child. What do they respond to, if anything? 

Toddlers are fickle, after all, and you’re probably still figuring it out. If nothing seems to work as you alternate strategies of laughter, lecture and self-scrutiny, take heart. 

This, like everything else, is a phase. Do your best, enjoy the ride and above all, as always, be OK with your — ahem — fabulously imperfect self. 

Jen Wittes lives in St. Paul and is a mother of two. Send questions or comments to