Donald Trump called for NFL league owners to fire any “son of a bitch” who protests the flag. Of course, this is not the first time he has used coarse language publicly, and yet he garners wide support from white Evangelicals.
Those of us who grew up Evangelical sees the hypocrisy plain as day, as one of the things that “set us apart” from the unholy was refraining from cursing. ‘Gosh darn it,” and ‘shoot,’ and my personal favorite curse substitute, ‘Mother Father,’ were used by those of us who praised Jesus with our saintly lips on the regular.
I’m not sure we were ever given a solid biblical justification for not swearing–it was first and foremost a cultural expectation. If we swore, even accidentally, those in the Evangelical subculture questioned our ‘godliness,’ and when those outside of the bubble praised our clean mouth, we felt the Holy Spirit score a win by our witness.
Fundamentalism sustains itself by perpetuating cultural standards. Its constituents follow the rules in order to maintain a status of belonging and exude the status of excellence within it, not necessarily because they’ve carefully discerned for themselves the reasons why they engage in the behavior.
Why don’t we swear? What words are considered profanity? When is it okay to curse? How often? In what context?
Unfundamentalist parenting is to ask those nuanced questions and take into account the age appropriateness of the growing children in our homes. Even in secular culture, it is generally frowned upon for young children to swear. But why? And at what age should we allow children to begin swearing?
What is the moral foundation for the way we conduct our language for our families?
Power of Words
Our human capability to perceive and utilize language is remarkable. Research shows babies can hear their mother’s voice in the womb, and by birth can already distinguish between their mother’s language from another. Typically, before their first birthday, babies are forming their first words. Our words have profound impact on our children and their growing capacity to use words dramatically set the stage of their living, as they begin to participate in the world with their little personalities.
Words matter. A lot. All of us can remember instances of personal pain, deep woundedness from hurtful words said to us, perhaps by our parents or other loved ones. But just as much as it has the power to hurt us, it also has the capacity to heal, to uplift, and to liberate.
The most basic foundation of forming an ethic around cursing for our children is to show them how much words matter. And the best way to do this is to speak kind, brave, and beautiful words to them. The words we use have the power to form the earliest connection with our children, not just to model how they ought to speak, but to set down a firm foundation of love, security, and independence.
Love, Not Fear
When we establish that loving connection with our children, they will be liberated and empowered to use their words to impact the world. As much as words affect us, they are but tools, random syllables put together by civilizations all over the world to create a system that delivers meaning. Humans created language—we have the power to wield it, master it, and even change it. So our task in parenting is to raise our children to responsibly use this power. Essentially, we want to teach our children that although words contain power, they, the children, have more.
Swearing, then, is not something to fear. We may wince at toddlers accidentally sounding out profanity, but that’s because we carry the baggage of those words from our experiences in the adult world. To them, it is just a word, an experiment in which a certain shape of their mouth, position of their tongue, and breath pushes the sound which comes out of their mouth. It is play, just like everything else in a toddler’s world.
When love, not fear, guides our ethic, we can begin to partner with our children to explain and to explore the landscape of language. You cannot explore or experiment when we forbid access. This is why I am against strict rules of no swearing, or sheltering them from media that contains curse words. How will they learn to shape and influence the world if they don’t engage in it?
At the same time, when love guides our ethic, many words become off limits by default. For children to call a friend, “stupid fat head” is just as harmful as “fucking idiot” because it is a spirit of unkindness directed at others. Racist and homophobic slurs contain a history of oppression, and our children can be taught to not use it for one simple moral reason: we don’t hurt others. When we are empathetic towards our children, when we empower our children to shape their language, their natural inclination will be to master their words to tell a story of love, not hate.
But if our children use curse words to express their emotions? Or to connect common human experiences with their family and friends? “This feels shitty,” when their pet dies, is real and tender. Sometimes swearing is funny, and humor is another relational adhesive that binds us.
Another important lesson in wielding power over language is sensitivity to context. Swearing in a professional interview is inappropriate but at a bar with friends is okay. Mature adults know to make wise choices in when to deploy curse words. But this is a lesson even very young children can learn and to practice doing. Professor Benjamin Bergen, author of What the F: What Swearing Reveals about our Language, our Brains, and Ourselves, says context sensitivity is not beyond a child’s reach—even a two year old knows screaming profanities in public will garner a negative reaction.
Some people argue cursing is a sign of laziness and lack of creativity in word choice. Perhaps, but what I know is fundamentalists who grew up staying away from curse words have remained in a status quo worldview that is terribly uninteresting. So not swearing does not necessarily equate creativity.
The best way to raise children to be creative is to raise them to be free—to have access to a variety of languages and vocabulary, even if some of the words are colorful ones.
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