Back when I was your age… What parent doesn’t say—or at least think—that once in a while?

Back when I was a child, my parents were very strict about several things—including forbidding the use of certain words. As a child, I was not allowed to curse or to use any “bad” language. My siblings and I were not even allowed to use substitute swear words. No darn or heck, no golly, gosh or jeesum crow.

My parents kept to this same high standard themselves. The strongest language I ever heard from them was my mother on a rare occasion of extreme frustration exclaiming, “For Pete’s sake!” And once or twice my father in the heat of emotion told Mother she was being… well, it starts with a “B” and rhymes with “witchy.”

Although my husband and I also discourage the use of bad language by our kids, our home is not quite so verbally sanitized. Our children have heard some bad words from us. And I have consequently from time to time given them the “do as I say, not as I do” speech.

One of our 12-year old son’s observations, in comparing New Hampshire classmates with those he left behind in Oklahoma earlier this year, is that “the kids here are nicer, but they cuss more.” Perhaps the nicer evaluation refers to classmates being more welcoming of someone new, which could be a function of being in a smaller town and school.

As to the cussing, I have given that some thought. First, the Oklahoma kids may just have been a few months behind the New Hampshire kids. Maybe by next year, the Oklahoma children would be talking just the same way.

But I also have to think that if kids here cuss more, then they hear more cussing from the adults around them. And that, I speculate, has something to do with religious culture.

The Northeast is the least-churched part of the country, with Catholics and liberal Protestants predominating among those who do go to church. Oklahoma, on the other hand, remains heavily churched, primarily by conservative Protestants, who are likely taught that it is wrong to use certain words.

This subject of bad language just came up between me and the 16-year old student from Madrid who is spending a couple weeks with us. I know practically no Spanish, so I wouldn’t notice if Marta and her friends from Spain were using bad language.

But she told me that an American host family teen was surprised to hear the girls from Spain liberally using the Spanish equivalent of the “F” word. Hardly a gangsta-ish girl—she said they talk like that all time; much more commonly in Spain, she thinks, than here.

I’m not sure. Judging from certain music and movies, one would think that urban black youth and young adults use nothing but expletives in their speech. Judging from my son’s comments, the same could be said of adolescent boys in small-town, nearly all-white New Hampshire.

My son has volunteered that on at least one occasion he has suggested to a boy at lunch that he try substituting some other word for a change. Along with the bad words, there are reportedly frequent sexual jokes.

As a parent, where do I stand in regard to so-called “bad” language? I tell my children that it is better to avoid such choices, at least not making them habitual. Not so much because it is wrong, but because it can be offensive–more to some than to others, and you don’t always know ahead of time just who will be offended. Using bad words can be interpreted as disrespectful. As I explain to my children, it can cause people to think less of them.

If my kids slip and use a bad word—or if they intentionally use a string of them—will God get them? I don’t think so. And I don’t want my kids to feel excessively guilty or to give those words more power than they deserve—or to think that by avoiding certain words, their speech is automatically acceptable. Saying to a loner at school, “You’re fat and ugly!” is surely a worse verbal violation than cussing when you stub your toe.

Beyond “sins” of verbal commission, there are the words we and our children can too often omit. Perhaps using good language—please, thank you, you’re welcome, I’m sorry, I love you, come join me—is actually more important to consider than the easier task of cleaning up bad language.

Common wisdom tells us that “Actions speak louder than words.” Good or bad, it is really how our words connect with action that matters most. The Bible tells us that “Out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks.” In our own lives and as guides to our children in their speech, let us learn to look beyond the surface of words that are said, to what is inside and what is done.

Karen Johnson Zurheide is chair of BCE’s board of directors

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