About last night, What can I do about my children’s offensive language? 07-01-18

January 25, 2018

Q: I have teenaged children who often bring friends home. They are great kids, but I get het up when I overhear the bad language they use all the time. Their constant use of the f-word is bad enough, but I cringe at how readily and casually they use the c-word, which I find deeply offensive to women. They have not heard this language at home. Why do they do this, and what can I do about it?

A: Firstly, if this is the worst thing your teenagers are doing you are getting off lightly. Teenagers push boundaries, and often copy their peers in order to fit in. While their swearing might seem ugly to you, do not overreact. Instead, use this as a learning opportunity. In cultures around the world there are words that are taboo. Using these in public is frowned upon, and using them has the ability to shock. These words are usually sexual, or blasphemous in nature, reflecting the areas that cause most anxiety.Swear words are constantly evolving, and can lose their power as society evolves. In today’s secularised society, blasphemy has far less power. A century ago it was unacceptable to say “damn” and “bloody”. Similarly, our increasingly open attitude to sex means that words like “f—” and “dick” are regularly used on TV and in public.

For some reason, however,  the c-word still has immense power to shock. This reflects our ongoing anxiety about female sexuality. It is particularly offensive to many women because they resent the fact that women’s genitals are seen to be dirtier, and less acceptable, than a man’s.

It used to be said that “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can never hurt me”. We now know that verbal abuse can be very damaging, but it is important to keep things in perspective.

The power of “bad” language is contextual. When my friend’s grandmother visited from the Netherlands, she was horrified by all the signs advertising hot pies because “pies” is the Dutch term for urine.

Looked at rationally, it is ludicrous for a combination of letters, or the utterance of a sound, to do harm. “Duck”, “cult”, “tanker” and “shin” are only one letter away from causing offence, but are completely innocuous.

When people swear in order to shock it is best to deny them the reaction they want. One mother I know got so tired of her teens saying c— that she started chanting it repeatedly until it lost its sting and just sounded silly.

It is pointless to tell your children that they must not swear. They will, even if they are more cautious when you are in earshot. You are more likely to have an impact if you have a broader conversation about language.

For example, you might point out that poorly educated people with a limited vocabulary often overuse swearing. Their communication is peppered with swear words because they have difficulty communicating. This style of talk is ugly and boring, and reflects badly on the speaker.

The other point to make is about courtesy, and consideration for others. Swearing with your fiends might be fairly harmless, unless you are in public. Shouting obscenities on the tram, or in the street can cause some people, especially the elderly, distress and pain. This is not clever or funny. It is important to learn about time and place.

Research has shown that swearing can have its benefits. For example, it has been shown that swearing increases tolerance to pain. If you stub your toe and say, “fable, table” you will not get the relief you will get from a good curse.

It is important to pick your battles with teenagers. Keeping the channels of communication open is vital if you want them to come to you when they have a problem. For this reason, do not go overboard about something as trivial as swearing. At the end of the day, bad language never killed anyone. Your children will learn to moderate this behaviour as they mature because they will get to understand that it is in their own interests to give a good impression.

Email your questions to abtlastnight@gmail.com

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