By John Keilman, Chicago Tribune
I had hoped my boy would be a little older before I was forced to have this conversation with him, but we don’t live in Norman Rockwell’s America anymore.
Kids are going to experiment.
They’re going to do things they’re not mature enough to handle. We parents might wish they’d wait until they were older, but that’s not realistic. The best we can do is to make sure they have the information they need to make a smart decision.
So the other night, I walked into my child’s room and said, “Son, if you’re going to write naughty words on a school paper, you really need to erase well before handing it in.”
My boy is 6, a first-grader receiving a gleeful introduction to swearing. He seems to bring new words home every week, testing them out with the relish of someone who has discovered a latent superpower.
But he got a reality check recently when he scribbled a minor crudity on a homework assignment — amusing himself, I guess, with the way it looked in print — only to be caught when he failed to erase vigorously enough.
His teacher made him write a letter of apology, which my wife and I had to sign. We were mortified and, thankfully, so was my son. But the episode got me wondering about what the taboo on cursing really amounts to these days.
Your grandmother might never utter the three-letter word that got my boy in trouble, but it is comfortably nestled in the lexicon of prime-time network television. No one winces when a high school football coach tells his players to go out and kick some of it. No one blinks when a beleaguered politician publicly invites his critics to kiss it.
And indeed, the word is weak tea compared with other terms getting a vigorous workout on screen and street alike. Just check out the Web site, “People of Walmart.” It carries dozens of photos of shoppers wearing profane T-shirts, some so spectacularly offensive they’d make Tony Soprano cough up his espresso.
I’ve even been treated to a medley of X-rated epithets in my own suburban neighborhood, after a woman drunkenly reeling down the sidewalk one Sunday afternoon didn’t appreciate my curious stare. She didn’t seem to care that my 3-year-old daughter, sitting astride her Dora the Explorer bicycle, was staring too.
I’m certainly no pillar of rectitude. I work in a newsroom, where the talk can be as blue as anything you’d hear on an oil rig or a trading floor, and I could hold my own in a cussing contest with Patti Blagojevich. But I try to keep bad language away from the kids, and with the exception of some unfortunate, traffic-related incidents, I mostly succeed.
Sometimes, though, I wonder why I bother. Today’s children have inherited a world in which swearing is common-place in high and low culture alike.
Attempts to stem the tide, such as massive federal fines when a celebrity drops an F-bomb on broadcast TV, seem like overbearing paternalism when you can hear the same word booming from the window of a passing car.
Some say we ought to leap into this swamp and start swimming. Dan Savage, the well-known sex columnist who edits a bawdy alternative newspaper in Seattle, has argued for years that profanity bans hurt mainstream publications.
Adults read, hear and use dirty words all the time, he says, and newspapers that pretend they don’t exist seem laughably square.
“If you don’t have anything in your paper that’s going to upset a 5-year-old, then 35-year-olds are going to look elsewhere for the kind of writing that appeals to them and speaks to them,” he told an interviewer.
A foul mouth can even make someone a folk hero. Some applauded Paul Gogarty, an Irish politician, for cursing out a fellow elected official during a parliamentary debate last month.
“Fair dues to him,” a YouTube viewer wrote in a typical comment. “I respect him for talking like a real person.”
History seems to be on the side of vulgarity. No V-Chip, filtering software or parental glare can stop the spread of bad words, and once they’re entrenched in a person’s vocabulary, they can be impossible to uproot. Believe me, I know.
That’s why I’m glad my son’s teacher cracked down on his salty language. It might have just postponed the inevitable, but it’s nice to know some places are still expletive-free zones.
If only I could make my car one of them.