It’s clear that society has coarsened over the past four decades and that’s especially the case with language. What was once utterly unacceptable now hits the airwaves and across the texting media, both in terms of sheer language and also sexual imagery. While I’m a father and supposed to serve as a role model for the kids, my own language has always been "earthy" and my ex-army DI father could curse as unconsciously as others breathe. As the author Jean Shepherd once commented about the father in A Christmas Story: "He worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay. It was his true medium; a master." That has rubbed off and I’ve had to work to control it over the years, sometimes more successfully than others. But if I’m not Ned Flanders, is there a language compromise – an ethics of cussin’ – that I should adopt? To thine own self be true (dammit).
Being a member of the ’70s generational cohort that popularized the term you suck – and knowing that it was originally referring to male genitalia – it’s jarring to hear the phrase used simultaneously in a grocery store by a grandparent and her early elementary school granddaughter in the local grocery store.
Granddaughter: Ewww, I don’t like that cereal ‘cuz it sucks.
Grandmother: Oh, I’m sorry sweetie. I didn’t know that it sucked.
Listen to the conversation and mentally complete the comments with a parenthetical slang term for male genitalia and you too, can experience the cognitive dissonance. I almost had an ear-bleed when I heard my own mother use the word suck in a conversation. Well, that meal sucks. (pause) Honey, what’s wrong?
While the mental picture of childhood is puppy dog tails and Little Golden Books, the reality is that they’re going to hear the language far sooner than later. The term m*****f***** first came off the kids’ lips when Middle asked me – then in preschool – what it meant. I actually pulled the car over and asked where he heard it and he responded that a classmate blurted it out when her block tower toppled over that morning. While I tried to monitor my own language and be an example through the years, the influx of other words and phrases crept into the household from outside sources, typically the school but even church. Being asked by a middle-school kid at my church whether I was familiar with the term donkey show – a slang phrase so foul that I won’t even link it to a definition – was literally jaw-dropping. So how do I respond to all of this? How do I walk a line that allows me to be, as Saint Paul once wrote, in the world yet not of it?
There are several parameters to my handling of the cursing issue.
The first parameter pertains to the kids understanding that Dad is the go-to guy for practical, factual information on what these various terms mean. Because the kids hear some profanity cross my lips, they’re more comfortable in bringing unfamiliar terms and phrases to me than to their mother and it’s that willingness that I encourage. I’ve told each of my three kids, early in their puberty, that I’ll give them an honest definition of a particular phrase or term brought to me; they’ll likewise also hear any synonyms for the phrase so that they can then put it context wherever they hear it next. They also hear some guidance on appropriateness. The reality is that they’re going to certainly hear the terminology around their peers and it wouldn’t surprise me – disappoint perhaps, but not surprise – if they also used the language to at least some extent. But all three also gain a perspective on whether something is just cussing or whether there’s something truly objectionable about a particular term. They hear what terms I simply refuse to say and they hear the reasons why I choose not to say them, either because they’re simply too profane or because of the second parameter, political correctness.
Let me be frank in that I don’t like political correctness. Let me also be frank in acknowledging that the issue has run amok in the school system and there is a form of language/thought police activity occurring in the school system, a process that actively roots out any commentary regarding gender, race or sexual orientation. I do understand the rationale behind it even if I believe that it gets carried to an extreme and in the heat of the moment, one wrong remark can land a kid in the principal’s office; calling someone a dummy is sticks-and-stones material but referring to someone in an ethnic or gender format will land a kid in the doghouse, at least at the lower levels. Using language based upon a person’s appearance or gender also lessens the ability to learn to judge a person based upon their behavior and the content of their character, a crucial skill that many never master but important as a person navigates life.
The third parameter is admittedly odd, but it’s that there are so many perfectly useful words that already exist and that simply slipping into profanity is simple laziness. This came up in a conversation with Youngest some months ago when I heard him use a profane term to describe a person that didn’t go to the stupidity of that kid’s actions. He could have used terms such as idiot, stupid, dumb, cretin or moron but he opted for the other instead and this was pointed out to him vigorously.
The fourth parameter is that there is a time and a place for profanity, although there are some who will certainly disagree. On multiple occasions, I’ve used profanity in order to drive a point home, making it a verbal and audible exclamation mark for the kid in question. If my entire vocabulary consists solely of profanity, then using it to make a definitive point is lost as it simply becomes another expletive-laced tirade and the message’s import is lost.