North Dakota State University
NDSU Extension Service

Spitting, Swearing, Backchat and Other Preschool Pleasures

When your preschoolers seem to be showing their worst side, check out the environment, their schedule, the appropriateness of their activity, and your actions and reactions to the troublesome behaviors.

Preschool children are at the very beginning of their moral development. Parents must encourage children in positive ways by modeling the behaviors they expect from their children. Using the excuse that adults have earned the privilege of using swear words, sarcasm and other behaviors will not work with young children who are watching harder than they are listening.

Punishment, although it will stop the behavior momentarily, is not the most effective long-term solution. Helping a child figure out what needs correcting and how the situation might be handled differently next time is long lasting and effective. Done respectfully the child gains self-worth and self-control.


Some reasons a child may spit include: it gets attention, it gives power, it is hard to stop and parents react quickly.

An older preschooler may be interested in looking at spit under a microscope or growing it in a petri dish. A frank talk about the spread of germs and body fluids may be in order.

Determine if this is copycat spitting. Perhaps the offending adult will stop or at least show the child where they do it: outdoors, in the bathroom, when brushing teeth, etc. Teach the child appropriate places to engage in the activity.

Observe when spitting happens, who is there and what the reaction is. If it's an angry reaction, talk with the child to decide how to better handle the anger. Remind the child of other options when she becomes angry next time.


Colorful language has long been a problem for parents of children age 3 and up.

Preschoolers are fascinated by words and their own growing vocabulary. When parents act surprised, excited and fascinated by their children's positive big new words such as supercalifragilistic, fantastic, hoop-to-do and the like, children will depend on these words instead of negative words to get attention. Feeling words like anxious, joyful, upset, ecstatic and angry are fun to say but also impress others.

Generally speaking, teach other more appropriate words, address the unacceptable word once or twice explaining why you don't allow that kind of talk and then ignore the repetition of it. The last thing a negative behavior needs is constant attention.


Few things set parents off as quickly as having their preschool child talk back to them. Parents wait years to be in charge of their own lives. Being told "no" or "you can't make me" can be fighting words to adult ears. When parents spend time teaching their children the fine art of negotiation, problem solving and decision making, they are much less likely to witness this type of open defiance. This verbal pushing is a preschool way of showing independence from parents.

Offering choices, such as, "Would you like to hop to the car like a bunny or prance like a pony?" puts the child in control of the small choice while the adult gets the child to move to the car without argument. Direct commands are usually grounds for confrontation. Problem solving may sound like this:

PARENT: We need the living room cleaned up before lunch. I could start lunch while you put away the toys.

CHILD: No, I can't. There are too many.

PARENT: Let's figure out how else we could make lunch and pick these up. What are your ideas?

CHILD: I could help you with lunch and you could help me with the toys.

PARENT: Great idea. That's what I call cooperation!

As always, the key is to model this type of behavior and let your child have the last word. When she sees getting in the last word is not important to you she won't fight for it either.


Stealing is common in preschoolers because their desires are more powerful than their self-control. Temptation is too great when finding a special pen in Mom's bag or nickels on Dad's dresser. Instead of harsh punishment or long lectures, put appealing valuables away. If children take things because this is the only way to get them, perhaps a small weekly allowance is in order.

Reinforce asking before "borrowing" or "taking" by doing the same. When you know your child has stolen something, don't force him to lie about it too. State, "I know that you took the dollar bill from the table. I remember a time when I did that too. I was scared and felt sad that I did it. That money is for your sister's school lunch and needs to be returned."

Continue the conversation to find out if the child needs money for something, couldn't resist the temptation or is simply trying to get a familymember's attention.

Children are motivated by their desire to make sense of their world. Parents who recognize this need to experiment and to see cause and effect in action will find joy in parenting.

This newsletter is published for North Dakota families with preschoolers by the NDSU Extension Service and distributed through your county extension office. See your extension agent for more parenting information and other home economics programs.

Parenting Preschoolers, Issue No. 8

NDSU Extension Service, North Dakota State University of Agriculture and Applied Science, and U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Sharon D. Anderson, Director, Fargo, North Dakota. Distributed in furtherance of the Acts of Congress of May 8 and June 30, 1914. We offer our programs and facilities to all persons regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, age, Vietnam era veterans status, or sexual orientation; and are an equal opportunity employer.
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North Dakota State University
NDSU Extension Service