Q: My son got a detention for using a curse word at school. I’m not complaining about that. He said it and he knows he shouldn’t have. But I am wondering why schools have to treat it so harshly. Everybody swears. Why make a big deal of it?
I think I speak for most of us humans in saying that, regardless of your stance on cursing in general, profanity coming out of a child’s mouth appears nasty and disagreeable. And any behavior that makes our kids look like cretins should be strongly dissuaded. I realize cursing kids is a la mode in contemporary movies and television, but so is homicide, so I wouldn’t use Netflix as my benchmark for what’s cute.
Even in the adult world, the use of profanity is not as endorsed as you seem to think it is. A recent study from Southern Connecticut State University found that using swear words makes you seem less intelligent than those who don’t curse. It also showed that people who swear a lot are generally judged to be less trustworthy and more aggressive, even by people who aren’t at all offended by profanity. For that reason alone, schools shouldn’t just let it slide. We may not always be able to make them as smart as we’d like, but we can at least teach them not to look stupid.
Profanity may not seem as big a deal to adults because they use the words are mostly for emotional effect, not for any semantic reason. But smaller children don’t generally do that. They’re new to the language. They have to think about the words they use. When they learn what the “F” word means, they’re thinking about what it means. So it has a more abrasive impact on their thinking. That, of course, can alter their character in a myriad of ways that you should be wary of as a parent.
The kids I hear swearing in school seem to have a common trait: utter lack of self-control. Oh, I know most students curse. But most of them possess the restraint to knock it off when a teacher’s around. Students who can’t or choose not to generally face a problematic future. Just saying.
As best I can tell, people seem to start swearing for one of two general reasons.
The first is “garbage in, garbage out.” It’s an old but still applicable equation. If we surround ourselves with music, movies, books, shows, or other media that continually use profanity, it will only be a matter of time before our brain assimilates it and we start spitting it out ourselves. This is an easy fix (assuming you want to fix it and it doesn’t sound like you do, but for the sake of parents who might, please roll with me here) because all we have to do is start making sure we and our children surround ourselves with more positive media influences.
Some parents are shocked to hear about their kids using profanity. After all, they never use it at home. These are the same parents who are shocked to find out that video games these days are hooked up to a “world wide web” and that kids don’t play them alone. They play with anonymous teens and adults from literally anywhere, and from these utter strangers they hear things that would make most parents’ ears explode, profanity being the least of it. At this point I could also talk about texting and Snapchat, but we’ve been over all that before.
So if your child is cursing a lot, check the garbage.
The second reason is the adage that “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” This means that if our language is filled with the vulgar and profane, it may be indicative of a fault in our character, like impetuosity or attention thirst. I find that in most kids it’s the common flaw of needing to fit in. Children know it’s wrong to curse, but they do it because their friends do it, and they don’t want to seem “different.”
That’s a tougher one to cure. It’s easy to change your radio station or internet bookmarks. It’s a lot harder to change your heart.
I think if we could trace the disapprobation of profanity back to its roots, it would have a simple but illuminative origin: we can do better. When you think about what curse words really mean, you realize that they do not elevate us. They degrade. So when kids curse, it’s important to redirect them to language that lifts. When our language is focused on whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable or excellent or worthy of our acclaim, we may find that our actions and attitudes follow suit.