It’s 2010. My son is 8, and in the second grade. I am driving him to school. He is in the back seat, lost in his Nintendo DS game device. Suddenly a long-suffering sigh wafts up into the front seat. Then the voice so quiet, so innocent, so sincere and thoughtful: “This is all messed up.”
Except he didn’t say “messed.” I could type the word, but the newspaper won’t print it. Maybe they’ll print this: “This is all (expletive) up.”
Did you notice all the careful machinations I deployed to dance around a word? That’s one powerful word! I might as well have opened a box of plutonium rods.
I remember George Carlin, who said, “First we have a thought. Then we invent a word for that thought. Then we’re stuck with that word for that thought!” I remember the naivete of Shakespeare’s Juliet, who says, “That which we would call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” Although she’s technically correct, she misses the point. She overlooks the powerful symbolic weight of language. If tomorrow we all agreed to replace the word “rose” with the word “gooberspatz,” then, yes, it would still smell as sweet. But changing words changes us. It changes the way we see and think about the rose.
Needless to say, my boy’s choice of adjective shocked me. I confess it also cracked me up. Three years later, the story has been permanently installed in the annals of Family Lore. I still laugh when I tell the story. But, in that moment, I knew I had a job as a father. What does a parent do when the child curses?
His brothers were 5 and 3 when I moved to Las Vegas in 1996. That meant regular trips across the Hoover Dam when we went to Arizona to visit family. The boys couldn’t wait to reach the dam, because every time we crossed over, they would gleefully bask in precocious puns: “Look at this dam traffic! … Dam pedestrians! … Papa, why are you driving so dam slowly?” etc.
They were pleased with themselves. Here was a way to (almost) curse like a grown-up, but not get in trouble.
True to their generation, my parents’ strategy on this issue was to teach me there were “good words” and “bad words.” And, since you didn’t want to be bad, then you didn’t use bad words. If you did you would Get In Trouble. Another common strategy for parents is to try to convince children that cursing is ignorant. In principle. That is, people who curse are too stupid to use actual, descriptive noncurse words to try to drive home an emphatic point.
As a father, I prefer teaching my children not a good and bad use of language; rather, a responsible use of power. And language is power. This means that my first reaction to their experiments with profanity is nonreactivity.
I’m not outraged and offended; I’m curious, concerned and inquiring. I shine a bright light on their language, and insist they account for it.
Why are you using that word? What do you mean when you use it? You have to be responsible for the words you use!
Responsible use of words means teaching decorum. Know your audience. Respect is the most important rule. Indeed, profanity is used by responsible adults in particular times and places, just like responsible adults drink adult drinks in particular times and places. Vulgarity does not always make us vulgar. It is sometimes creative, comedic, revelatory, recreational, endearing, bonding, descriptive, bawdy, reveling, playful, even therapeutic. Context is everything.
Three years ago, I pulled into the school parking lot, got my giggling under control, put on my most sincere Concerned Father Face, and said, “Did I hear you say that your DS was ‘all $#@!ed up’?” He hears my tone. “Oops,” he says.
“Do you know what that word means?” I said. “Just that something is wrong with it,” he replied. I push on: “Do you talk to your mother like that? Your teachers?”
Now he’s offended. “No,” he protests, with an incredulous “do-you-think-I’m-stupid” look on his face. “Good to know,” I say.
And that was it. That was enough. The truth is, I’ve never once received a call from any teacher or school administrator about any of my children using vulgar language in public.
Child-rearing is not about naughty versus nice. It’s about teaching responsibility.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.