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More and More, Kids Say the Foulest Things

Anti-Swearing Efforts Falling on Deaf Ears

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; Page A12

Dan Horwich's English class is a bastion of clean language, where students read the classics and have weighty discussions free of invective and profanity. But when the bell rings and they walk out his door, the hallway vibrates with talk of a different sort.

"The kids swear almost incessantly," said Horwich, who teaches at Guildford High School in Rockford, Ill. "They are so used to swearing and hearing it at home, and in the movies, and on TV, and in the music they listen to that they have become desensitized to it."

Tips to Tame Your Tongue

1. Recognize that swearing does damage.

2. Start by eliminating casual swearing. Pretend that your grandmother or your young daughter is always next to you.

3. Think positively.

4. Practice being patient. When you are stuck in line or in traffic, ask yourself if a few more minutes matter.

5. Cope, don't cuss. Consider even the smallest annoyance a challenge, and feel proud of yourself for taking care of it cheerfully and efficiently.

6. Stop complaining. Before you start griping or whining about something, remind yourself that no one really wants to hear about it.

7. Use alternative words. Develop your own list of alternatives to the nasty words you now use, relying on your own intelligence, a thesaurus, good books and clever TV shows.

8. Make your point politely. Some substitute words can be just as offensive if your tone is abrasive or you insult someone.

9. Think of what you should have said.

10. Work at it.

SOURCE: Cuss Control Academy

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In classrooms and hallways and on the playground, young people are using inappropriate language more frequently than ever, teachers and principals say. Not only is it coarsening the school climate and social discourse, they say, it is evidence of a decline in language skills. Popular culture has made ugly language acceptable and hip, and many teachers say they only expect things to get uglier.

Horwich said he won't tolerate vulgarity in his classroom, and he tells students on the first day of school what he expects. But the 31-year-old teacher said he feels as though he is waging a losing battle -- and he isn't alone. Many teachers say that even if they can control their own rooms, only schoolwide efforts can make a real difference.

Teachers say their principals often don't give them support on the issue, and principals say they can't because administrators are worried about "bigger" problems. Many parents are no help, cursing themselves or excusing their children's outbursts, teachers say. And though many school systems ban profanity, not much happens to most offenders. Many teachers say they no longer bother reporting it.

"Nobody turns their head anymore on the whole," said veteran teacher Pauline Carey of Mount Rainier Elementary School in Prince George's County, noting that her school is an exception in that all the adults are on the same page in demanding respect.

"Somebody has to call them on this language and not just pass it off," Carey said.

George Parker, a D.C. elementary school teacher and president of the Washington Teachers' Union, agreed. "In the same way we teach students math and English, we have to say that you can't come into our schools and use profanity," he said. "And we have to have a systemwide program to deal with it."

But there isn't one, Parker said. Some D.C. teachers, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared repercussions, said they had been told by their principals to "get used to the cussing" because officials downtown had more pressing concerns. A survey last year by Parker's union showed discipline was the leading concern of D.C. teachers.

Profanity, in the large sense, is defined as words that others consider offensive, although it originally was restricted to words that were blasphemous. Once heard mostly in whispers, today it is inescapable. "I never thought I would say this -- once being a hard-core anti-music censor -- but I understand why [young people] are doing this: You almost can't find a song, video game, television show, anything, without a curse word," said Laura Lee Cox, a seventh-grade teacher at Cedartown (Ga.) Middle School.

Children ages 4 and 5 often go through a phase of using inappropriate language they hear but can't understand, child-rearing experts say. Parents are advised against reacting too strongly because the youngsters soon learn from adults that the words are inappropriate.

The problem, said James V. O'Connor, director of the Cuss Control Academy in Lake Forest, Ill., is that when children learn that the words are inappropriate, they enjoy using them all the more to get a rise out of their parents.

Soon it becomes "cool" behavior at school, even if many children don't understand what they are saying. Anne Ryan, a music teacher at Half Day School, a third- and fourth-grade public school in Lincolnshire, Ill., asks students to bring in favorite music lyrics to discuss.

"The students constantly question: 'Is this a bad word?' 'Is that a bad word?' " she said. "They hardly know what constitutes profanity."

High school students know, but by then the habit has formed, experts say, and the teenagers know they can get away with it. Said Kevin Shaigany, 17, a student at Walter Johnson High School in Montgomery County: "What can they really do [about it] in high school?"

Ivette Lopez, 18, a freshman at Montgomery College, said most of the time students aren't trying to be offensive. Seth Kroll, a 21-year-old American University student, agreed, saying: "It's part of our lexicon."

Others see it as lazy language, especially when the same word is used as different parts of speech. "People use it instead of articulating what they want to say," said Naomi Schimmel, 21, a George Washington University student.

Horwich said constant use of profanity reveals a poor vocabulary, and O'Connor lamented the toll it is taking on the language.

"There are words virtually disappearing from our English language," O'Connor said. "When people are mad, what do they say? They say they are pissed off or [expletive] pissed off. No range. There is a big difference between being upset or livid. There is a big difference between irritated and infuriated."

Parents can exacerbate the problem, teachers say, by defending children caught swearing in school.

"As soon as the kid gets suspended, or has a detention, or whatever the consequence, you have the parent come running down to the school, yelling and screaming and swearing, saying they are going to fight it and saying they are going to call their lawyer, and the school administrators back down," Horwich said.

Many teachers and administrators still put up a fight against foul language.

George Ferguson, a teacher at Big Cypress Elementary School in Naples, Fla., said he sometimes has children write class rules repeatedly, or he talks to an offender's parents.

Deborah Alford, a sixth-grade special education teacher at Cedartown Middle School, tells students "on a daily basis" what language is appropriate.

Yvonne Morse, a veteran D.C. educator, advises strategies such as counseling, peer mediation and problem-solving sessions, parent conferences, in-school suspensions and letters of apology written by the offender.

Bonnie Tryon, principal at Golding Elementary School in Cobleskill, N.Y., said a schoolwide standard is key. "If you don't stop the little things," she said, "the little things become big."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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