More and More, Kids Say the Foulest Things

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

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."

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.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company