Bad Words

Everyone's got a funny cursing story: my little brother, at four, pulled a strange tool out of the kitchen drawer and said, "Mom, I'd like to know what the hell this is."  My sister whipped around to look at my mom, wondering what awful punishment lay in store for him.  I used to come home with colorful phrases I'd learned on the bus -- one of the reasons my parents pulled me out of public school.  When asked if I knew what they meant, I'd respond, "No, but everyone was laughing when they were saying it."  I won't repeat my husband's story here, as it contains actual profanity, but it's especially funny because it's grammatically incorrect profanity.

These stories are generally funny because it's one of the toughest things to teach a child -- what to say and not say.  The most obvious example is through our own speech.  If we curse, they will learn to curse, too, even if they are too smart to do so in front of us. But even if we don't curse, we can overuse certain terms that then become substitutes for swear words. I remember a three-year-old piano student who had been taught to say, "Oh, MAN!" instead of, "Oh, GOD!"  Not only was it overused -- every time he played a wrong note -- I thought there was a fundamental problem with being so disrespectful toward something God created in his own image; it was really just as disrespectful as using God's own name that way.  And even words like "stupid" can be poisonous, causing constant negativity.  Some close friends of ours wrestled with this with their young children and came up with the rule that you could call a thing stupid, but not a person.  (Three-year-old logic twisted that rule quite a bit.)

Most of my students are beyond their formative years and are using foul language as a way to vent or rebel, so I tend to just ignore it, and they stop once they realize they won't get attention for it.  Of course, there are always exceptions: a few years ago one of my Creative Writing students slipped a four-letter word into a story she was writing.  I ignored it.  She tried using a different one in the next story, which I also ignored.  Finally, when she started including several in every single piece she wrote, I had to confront her about it.  "It's not that I object to this language," I said.  "It's just that, as a writer, you need to learn better ways to express yourself; foul language is very limiting, both for your technique and for your intended audience.  Also, you're using this one wrong."  She seemed embarrassed by the conversation and didn't try it again.

A friend of a friend* has an interesting series up called "Ten Bad Assumptions for Training Children."  In number 9, "Words Can Be Bad," he explains that he and his wife have used the word "Zero" where most people would say "No."  This is partly because he "can’t stand to see a little kid using 'no' recklessly," and partly because "'Zero' is a much more difficult thing for kids to say." Seems like a clever idea to me, though it would sure be difficult to change your own vocabulary first.  Have any of you parents have ever experimented with alternative vocabulary?

*I don't actually know this person and don't agree with much of what's on his site.  In particular, he seems very defensive about, and threatened by, Orthodox-Catholic traditions.  That said, I found this series very thought-provoking and will probably bring it up again.