It is impossible to engage our culture at any level, and not hear curse words. Whether it is a television show or a stroll in the park, the words of our culture do not discriminate. They do not care who you are. The question every caring parent must answer is who is going to teach their child the culture’s language.
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Perhaps you can think about this culturally relevant topic by answering the following questions.
- Will your child learn curse words from someone?
- If so, who will teach your child curse words?
- And from what context do you want your child to learn their first curse words?
- Who will be developing your child’s theology of curse words?
- Who is currently teaching your child their theology of curse words?
Our culture’s words are like soldiers on a mission to destroy and kill. Their language has a clear-cut objective, which is to defile and corrupt the soul. This was made too real to me a number of years ago when my then six-year-old daughter was overjoyed at some good fortune that came her way.
She was talking to our 45-year old friend, who was not prepared for the moment, when my child exclaimed, “I am so damn excited.”
She made that statement while flinging her arms upward and falling backward inside our van. My friend’s mouth dropped as she helplessly tried to regain game face. My innocent daughter was oblivious to the weight of her words.
That was the day I made a mental note to teach her about curse words. It became clear she needed a better theology of language. Somehow she picked up on the word damn and unwittingly used it in context.
All wise and discerning parents are well-aware that our culture will not slow down for them to catch up, and how it is more than willing to do their jobs. Somebody will teach your child about right and wrong.
Will it be you or them?
When the world inevitably comes knocking on your door, it would be proactively wise for your children to already be introduced to the world. With language in view, here are four things children need to think well about our culture’s language.
- They need a biblical interpretation of the culture’s words.
- They need a lack of surprise or intrigue by the culture’s words.
- They need the courage to walk away from the culture’s language.
- They need discretion with the culture’s language in relational interactions.
Who is currently teaching your child these things?
This kind of training begins with the transcending and overarching parenting goal, which is to love God and others more than anything else (Matthew 22:36-40). As your child is learning this unique two-tiered world view about loving God and others, you can begin laying down a sound language strategy. That strategy will have three parts:
- Teach your child what God’s Word says (or implies) about language.
- Test how your child is using language in relational contexts.
- Release your child incrementally into the world for the purpose of practical application of your teaching.
With your God-loving, other-centered worldview in place, you will be able to instruct your child to rise above the unedifying noise of our culture. To turn language training over to someone who does not believe the way you do would disobedient and unkind.
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. – Ephesians 4:29 (ESV)
A time to cuss
I waited until my cursing daughter was 11-years old before we begin our theology of curse words conversations. (My son was 12-years old when I began introducing him to curse words. These private conversations were between the child and parent, while the younger siblings were not part of those conversations.)
My daughter and son had proven themselves trustworthy in stewarding big truths about less weighty matters, so to introduce them to weightier things like our culture’s language was not a concern for us.
We were confident they would be able to steward our conversations with discretion and humility. (This is a wisdom issue that each parent will have to determine according to the season of life and maturity of the child.) Both our children were advancing to a higher level in school (and church), which motivated us to be proactive in cultural language indoctrination lessons, knowing they would be encountering new words with more culturally indoctrinated children.
I introduced five words to my daughter and defined them. They were curse, cuss, hell, damn, and ass. (Typically when we have conversations like this I use my Penultimate app on my iPad. You can see the actual sketches at the bottom of this article.)
I wrote the words “cuss words” on our iPad and asked her if she knew what they meant. She did not. I then wrote the words curse words, and she did not know what they meant either.
From there I introduced her to the words hell, damn, and ass. She asked, “Why does dam have an “n” on the end of it?” A part of me was sad because I knew I was moving her from childhood innocence to being an adult in our culture.
Most parents struggle with their children growing older. I do. It is hard to accept, and even tougher to release them into the wild (world), though I have come to terms with this reality while choosing to be the one guiding them out of the nest rather than the world luring them from of the nest (Deuteronomy 32:11).
We continued as we talked about hell being a place of eternal torment and how it could be used as an unkind and angry response from someone as in, “Go to hell!” It was interesting she did not know what a burro was, and had never heard the word ass in the context of a donkey.
I did tell her how butt and crack were words that referred to ass, and how buttock is the correct term for a rear end. She was already familiar with penis and vagina–terms we chose to use with them when they were toddlers.
It seemed appropriate to end our language training for that time with those five words, though I did let her know we would revisit this conversation in the future as we look at more of the culture’s words. The main thing I wanted her to learn were not the words as much as the wisdom, respect, discretion, humility, and courage needed to think biblically about our culture’s language.
Theology of language
We spent a lot of time talking about a theology of language and how words begin with a neutral and innocuous foundation. Words are quickened and given force by the motive and meaning we upload to them.
- Motive determines how a word is used.
- Meaning is derived from the interpretation you attach to the word.
The word “Trinity” is neutral to a two-year-old who has never heard it. However, after the child is taught how the Trinity is a way of thinking about God, then the word comes alive. To the God lover, it is incredibly, wonderfully, amazingly, and overwhelmingly, stupendous.
The word stick could be used as an analogous metaphor for words. A stick is just a stick, nothing more and nothing less, except when my father told me to go out and get a “stick” from a tree so he could beat me with it. A stick is not neutral to me. The past use of a stick in my life affects how I think about a stick.
You may find sticks enjoyable, like when you climbed trees and swung from branches. Though that was part of my childhood, there was a darker, more dangerous application of the word stick.
Take crap (for example)
Thomas Crapper became a famous plumber in London, circa 1900. He did not invent the flush toilet, but he did invent the ballcock, and his name was on many of the manhole covers throughout London.
He was known for being a plumber. His name has since become synonymous with a bowel movement. I suspect most of you have heard the phrase, “I’m going to take a crap.”
Suppose I was a famous plumber, circa 1900, and my name became synonymous with toilet paraphernalia. Today, people would say, “I’m going to take a thom,” and some people would think that kind of talk is crude.
However, they would say crapper and crap, or maybe they would use Crappy as a nickname, and it would not sound wrong to anyone. But if someone said, “I’m going to knock the thom out of you,” it would be interpreted as harsh and some good Christian folk would be offended.
Language evolves over time, and what once was is no more. How we interpret words (meaning) and use words (motive) affects how we think about and react to them. Some of the old Puritan writers talked about intercourse with God. We do not talk that way today for obvious reasons.
The King James Bible talks about bastard children (Hebrews 12:8) and pissing on a wall (1 Samuel 25:22), but those words have evolved to the point where it is generally considered archaic, crass, and crude to use them.
Understanding the motive for and intentions behind words should release your conscience to teach your children a theology of bad words. Your motive is good and your intentions are pure, which makes you the perfect person to teach your children bad words. You are not trying to hurt or twist your child, but to free your child from cultural temptations.
Are you free to lead your child through bad language?
What are you exporting?
Paul talked about giving grace to those who hear, which is a key truth when thinking about words.
- Does your language give grace?
- Do your words build up?
- Are your words redemptive?
- What are you trying to export to your children?
I hope my children will not just learn the words of our culture and what they mean, but hope they learn how and when to use the world’s language. It takes more maturity to use words correctly and biblically than to use them harmfully.
You can walk through any crowded public venue and realize that people do not know how to use words redemptively. They know words, but they do not know how to use them to build up others. This should motivate any parent to take the lead in language learning.
If you do not teach them the culture’s words and their meanings, plus the motives behind them, then your job will be replaced by a surrogate cultural parent who has no shame or discretion.
Your children will not always watch G and PG movies, and they will not always live in a G and PG world. The Christian parent’s hope is when the world comes knocking, their children will not be vulnerable to its temptations, but will be able to intelligently, humbly, courageously, and wisely engage the culture where they will spend their lives.
Addendum on worldliness
You cannot talk about words without talking about worldliness. Worldliness–biblically defined–is not in the world, but in our hearts. John was clear in his first epistle about how worldliness is inside of us, not outside of us. (See also James 1:14-15)
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. – 1 John 2:15-16 (ESV)
John identifies worldliness as desires and pride, not some object or thing in our culture. Words are not worldly things in our culture unless our evil hearts take words and make them evil by uploading evil motives for evil purposes. As cultures and epochs change, so do our words.
The careful Christian is in tune with the culture in which he lives and uses words that are fitting to being a Christian in that culture.
Reflection and practice
1. Do not be hung-up about words. Words are words. You do not have to giggle when you say penis, and you do not have to feel as though you have gotten away with something when you say damn.
2. Consider your audience. Do your words uplift and build up or do they degrade and tear down. The Gospel is more about others, rather than about you. Always be thinking of others. Never use your freedom as a right to do as you please.
3. What is your motive? Make sure your heart is saturated by the Gospel when you speak. Let the words of your mouth come from a heart treasure that has been marinating in the Gospel. If so, your speech will be redemptive.
4. Are you a crude dude? Regularly give yourself sober assessments. What has the feedback been from those closest to you? How do they perceive, understand, and think about your speech patterns?
5. Have your words weighed. Most people will not give honest and critical feedback about the deeper matters of the heart. You will have to pursue it. Do not be afraid to seek out your friends to serve you with their assessment of your speech patterns.
6. Are you an encourager? Do the people around you feel more encouraged or discouraged after spending time with you? How does your speech affect others? Are you characterized as a redemptive builder by your words?