Joco Diversions

Emily Parnell — Strong language can show weakness

Updated: 2013-12-10T00:01:39Z


Special to The Star

“You better be glad I don’t cuss, because I’d be cussing right now.”

Yes, yes, I thank my lucky stars that my 9-year-old doesn’t spout obscenities. He was hopping mad about something or other, and I’m sure he was barely holding back a slew of seething four-lettered words.

Over the last few years, he’s come home with some colorful new words. He occasionally will brandish an expletive, but the context is often somewhat off. Verbs might be used as nouns and vice-versa — he’s far from dirty word fluency. We calmly tell him to pick a more acceptable way to say things — that he’ll sound more intelligent.

I’m sure he’ll master the potty mouth soon enough. Obscenities are extremely easy to learn, after all. Most of them are limited to four letters and could be readily sounded out by the earliest of readers. They’re often multi-purpose and can sprinkled around without creating question. They’re so easy that a couple of little kids can usually figure out their spelling. This I know, as a couple years ago, my kids asked me for assistance with a naughty-word spelling list. This was a self-study project they created for themselves, and they told me who had taught them each of the words. We have many classmates to thank. My children received A+’s on their spelling, and a stern reminder that those words are not acceptable for them to use.

I thought back to my early years. Our standards for acceptable language are much more lax than my parents’ were. When I was 9, my mother would have punished me for using the words such as (please skip to the next paragraph if you’re extremely sensitive) crap, poop, fart or butt. These were considered equal offenses to using their stronger three- and four-lettered synonyms. I recall my aunt talking about dog (expletive) and my mother reprimanding her. My aunt backtracked, using the word “poop” instead. My mother hissed, “That’s just as bad.”

As a teen, I started using strong language now and then. It actually made me feel strong, knowing I had the power to irritate and offend with a simple word. It made me feel grown up. But thanks to my upbringing, I knew to save my words for choice moments and company.

I’m not claiming we’ve never slipped up, but our family keeps our standards for polite language at a high level, if not quite as high a level as my parents did. Our goal is to ingrain acceptable knee-jerk vocabulary — the first word the comes flying out of your mouth when something goes wrong. Exclamations of “goodness gracious” can’t offend anyone. Referring to a driver who cuts you off as a “turkey” gets the point across without throwing up red flags. Screaming “Oh my gosh!” is a fairly innocuous response to stubbing a toe. I thank my parents for equipping me with first-resort expressions that I can use in a workplace, in front of my children or anywhere else, for that matter.

I know adults who can’t seem to filter their own mouths, even when they try. It’s frustrating to me as a parent to hear their rubbish flying around my kids, and it also reminds me just how important it is that my kids grow up with well-rounded, acceptable vocabularies. Knowing or using strong words may make them feel strong someday, but not being able to control one’s own words can end up being a weakness.

Overland Park mom and 913 freelancer Emily Parnell writes for Diversions each week.

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