Profanity and Children

“Little people should be encouraged always to
                       tell whatever they hear particularly striking…”

-Samuel Johnson

My family spent a good part of dinner two days ago talking about profanity and children. My daughter had been summoned by her daughter’s teacher; she explained how our precious and innocent little bundle of joy had uttered a profane word during recess. For a few seconds the world came to a halt, both at school and at my daughter’s home. The child was isolated. The mother of the aggrieved child had to be notified. Of course my daughter felt compelled to try to convince the teacher that this word was never used at her home. The mother who reported the infraction was not the teacher; now my daughter, and to a lesser extent all of us, worry about how confidential this piece of information will remain. Will she be invited to the next birthday party?

I have an uneasy relationship with profanity. As a rule I find it threatening and unwelcome. A few months ago I asked an usher at the ball park to intervene when the young man behind us was showering his companion, and anyone else within earshot, with numerous expletives. He wasn’t even angry. This is obviously the way he always talks.

That bothers me. For two reasons. First, because no one ever bothered to teach him additional vocabulary. Lack of education is very likely an important reason that people smoke too much, eat poorly, and fail to vote at the elections. Second, because I find these words intimidating. For me they’re not to be used during a friendly conversation. They put me on guard. I don’t want to be on the defensive at the ball park. Or at any other time.

Children provide an added complication. Even people who curse freely tend to harness themselves when children are around. Certain jokes are no longer funny. We don’t expose kids to Eddie Murphy routines. As if we thought that we can always shield them from these exposures. At some point they will hear one of these words, and you can bet your bottom dollar that they will instantly know that this is a special word; that it is designed to shock; that they will get attention when they use it. It’s only a matter of time before they drop the bomb.

What do we do then? Wish that it was easy. If a child is being raised in a situation where parents address each other this way, it would certainly be helpful for the teacher to know. On the other hand, every one of my daughters and their husbands could think of a time when they did exactly the same thing. We’re all very successful. Clearly using profanity once during childhood does not predispose to sociopathic behavior and failure.

So should we ignore it when a child drops the bomb?

It can’t be done. Too many lawyers. Lots of people going around looking for an opportunity to be offended or marginalized. The process has to be followed.

I closed the conversation by narrating my own experience with words and experiences that I did not understand. My family lived a few blocks from my elementary school.  My parents also worked within walking distance. Everyone came home for lunch. We sat around the formal dinner table; none of this kitchenette eat-and-run that we are so used to doing now. We had a tablecloth. And cloth napkins.

My dad, as I have often stated in the past, was a bit eccentric. Maybe demanding.  There was this particular soup that my mom made that he liked. So much so that he insisted on having a bowl for lunch and dinner, every day of his life. My mom was thrilled by this odd behavior, because once a week she made a big batch of the stuff; all she had to do for his dinner was to reheat the soup and throw a few leaves of lettuce on his plate (yes; spare me. I know it was sexist of him to expect to be fed, because both of them worked outside the home and she carried infinitely more responsibility. That’s the way it was; she survived and was happy).

One day we were sitting at lunch as usual. My sisters gave some updates on what had happened at school. One of them repeated a joke that she had heard. There was silence for a second. It was my turn.

I have a joke.

“Let’s hear it,” says my father

It’s red.

(In Puerto Rico a “red” joke, or chiste colorado, is what we’d call an off-color joke in English. Peculiar that we use colors to indicate prurient content. In Spain they are called green jokes).

My father did not hesitate to ask me to continue. I was the perfect child; what could I know that wasn’t appropriate?

There was a boy dog and a girl dog in an alley.

“Where’s the red part of the joke?” asked my father.

Inside the girl dog.

My father had just put a tablespoon of soup in his mouth. He choked on it; everyone at the table was splattered. Our nice embroidered tablecloth; soiled. For a second he could not breathe; then he began to cough out of control and ran away to go to the bathroom. My sisters looked to the floor and snickered. My mom sat up in her chair; looking straight ahead; in total shock.

I began to cry.

This is what happens in school. Everyone laughs and I don’t know why.

My mom decided that it was best if she left her seat to come and hug me. My sisters excused themselves. My father survived the coughing fit. No one ever spoke to me about my joke.

Which, in retrospect, was the right thing to do.  I turned out OK.

Out of the mouth of babes…

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  1. Lois Allen

    We truly live in different times. How people respond to words has changed so much. I was raised to understand that the things we say matter. There were boundaries and strictures of what was appropriate and what wasn’t. We were taught to honor God and not EVER take His name in vain. Crude talk was frowned upon and name calling could get you a missed meal.
    I think we all have stories like yours where we put our little foot in it as a child. My grandmother was a cheerful woman of good humor. One year as we prepared for Easter dinner she commented on the beautiful ham to be served and said it was a “ham what AM” to emphasize it’s delectable appearance. I was probably 4-5 years old and loved to imitate Grandma. When the family were all seated and preparing to say grace I piped up to also comment on the ham. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the quote correct. What came out of my childish lips was “ham be damn!”. My grandpa, the minister, looked at my mother with raised eyebrows and said nothing. The ladies around the table were horrified and I remember being mortified to realize I’d said something wrong. Mom took me aside later to explain my mistake. The story got told on me for years to come. It’s probably why I remember it so well.

    1. Yes; in so many ways it’s a much more complicated world. We don’t evolve on a straight line; many times we regress, or we think we have regressed until we remember how biased, unfair, or abusive it was for many people in the old days. We just have to keep trying to make it better.