As parents, we console ourselves with that idea when our children come home with behavior or language we don’t like. “They don’t hear or see that at home.” That is probably true because young children are absorbing everything new around them, and older kids imitate things that seem “cool.” We may find, however, that our children imitate certain things, but not others. The behaviors they copy may fit something they are struggling with developmentally. For example, a pre-teen who is not sure whether she or he is a teenager or a child, may copy inappropriate dress trying out all possibilities.

On the other hand, we may not realize that sometimes children are in fact, imitating us. The mother of a 20-month-old boy, a teacher herself, told me of her horror when she heard her child say, “Oh F---!” She told me that he said it in the tone of voice and in a situation in which one might use an expletive. Embarrassed, she confessed that he was imitating her and was horrified when he said this in her own father’s presence.

We can learn things we might not want to know about ourselves by listening to our children. Another mother told me of her chagrin at hearing her daughter talking to her doll saying, “Hurry, hurry, you have to get ready, we are going to be late.” She recognized the critical tone of voice and message as her own and it was a real eye-opener.

In the example of the little boy using an expletive, it seemed likely that he was unaware that the word he used is not socially acceptable but rather a simple expression of exasperation or frustration in certain situations. It was a good demonstration of how children imitate our behavior and mannerisms as they develop simply by learning from their environment.

Children’s horizons broaden once they are out in a larger social world and when in preschool what may seem like spontaneous combustion is the emergence of bathroom language or “poop talk.” Children at this age share a common interest in body functions and the process of toilet training puts the focus on one’s body and what comes out of it. Toilet training involves mastering the control needed to meet adult requirements and establishing such control is hard work for children. What better outlet than to substitute words for the actual poop. Instead of the poop coming out of your body the words can come out of your mouth without control.

The interest in bathroom talk does fade out but interest in the body does not, and poop words often mutate into genital words. This may coincide with a time when there is greater awareness and interest in the difference between boys’ and girls’ bodies. Here, too, the use of words contributes to a sense of mastery and power. The shock value alone of the words can give a sense of power, and the talk seems to serve a useful purpose in helping children master other concerns they may have about their bodies and body functions.

The spontaneous reaction of parents when socially unacceptable language first appears makes it immediately clear to children that their parents disapprove. Only when it is turned into a big issue do children use it to bait their parents. You can let children know that you recognize how much they enjoy saying those words but other people don’t enjoy hearing them.

The most useful policy after that is to ignore the language and change the subject. Without the reaction, the provocation loses its appeal.

— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. And, she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.