Friday, May 15, 2009

Holy Crap!

A child of a friend of mine unloaded this one at a family gathering.

Of course, I saw this and laughed. Because it's hilarious. But the timing of this post is oddly coincidental, because I was just last night thinking about why I have different standards of acceptable language for myself than for my children.

I am one of those people who just doesn't get offended by language. Say any word you like. It's just a sound - even the F-bomb. Why it's a more vulgar sound than say, "fork" is beyond me. It's just a sound. At the same time, very few people are offended by "pit" or "skit", and they sound remarkably similar to a word that people are hugely offended by. And, of course, the reason is that those words have a meaning in addition to the sound. And the meaning of those words bothers some people.

But, of course, when a friend of mine looks at when I'm sick and says, "Dude, you look like s*it." He doesn't mean what he's literally saying. What he's really doing is trying to use words to express empathy for how he thinks I'm feeling. I *know* that. I know that he's not literally trying to compare me to fecal matter. The literal interpretation of the sentence simply does *not* come to my mind. Instead, I appreciate the attempt at empathy. The specific sounds he chooses to utter are less important to me than the meaning behind those sounds.

This is *not* the case for my wife. When she hears the f-bomb, or the "s" word, I think the meaning of those words go through her head. And in most contexts, she's really just not that interested in thinking about those things. They distract her from the point, and get her thinking about something she doesn't like thinking about. Similarly, she has banned the word "stupid" from our children. Why? Not because she dislikes the sound of it, but she remembers being a kid and how hurtful that word felt. Even if they weren't using it at her. It, too, is a distraction to her.

So in front of my wife, I simply don't use curse words. Because I *know* that they bother her. I know that those words act as a distraction to her. If I want her to pay attention to what I'm saying, I'm better off using language that isn't a distraction to her. If I use distracting words, she focuses on them instead of the point that I'm trying to make. Talking like that, results in me spending too much time trying to get her to focus on the point and not the language.

And I do stuff like this all the time - I bet you do, too. At work, I never refer to a colleage as "dude". I do that *all* the time with my friends. I don't greet my colleagues with a hug, yet have no problem doing that with my friends. What I say and do has different impact in the context of where I am when I say and do those things.

As an adult, I have a much better tuned sense of what sort of contexts I can use certain language in without bothering anyone. As adults, we *know* certain words can be a distraction. We know this because we spent time in our teenage and college years experimenting and learning the impact of that type of language. Some of us took longer to learn than others. But the end result is that most adults rarely use curse words. But in the right context, we do. Because we *know* how that other person will understand it. And in those very limited contexts, it's ok. (Except, the times when it's not. We are still learning from our mistakes. Hopefully, we make fewer mistakes now than before.)

But my children don't yet understand this. They are simply too young to appreciate the subtleties of human interaction. They trample over someone else's feelings without blinking an eye. My 3 year old hasn't learned
  1. what it means to him to hurt someone else's feelings,
  2. much less how to be aware of when someone else's feelings are hurt,
  3. much less to be aware of what *he* did to hurt those feelings.
The 11 year-old has a basic grasp of #1 and an occasional grasp of #2 & #3. But it's very coarse, and needs refinement.

The result: we have banned certain words from them. They don't know how to distinguish the subtleties of using them. They don't know enough about when they will offend someone and when they won't.

I fully expect that their teenage & college years will be years of experimentation. And during those years, they'll learn, like most adults do, that it's just easier to communicate with people when you aren't worried about offending them. And what will probably happen (eventually) is that they'll fall into the same existence as most adults. We swear occasionally, but since we don't know who is and isn't bothered by it, we avoid it most of the time. Because that's the lazy way out. It's an easier existence to not have to be constantly patching things up with people who were distracted by the words we've chosen.

Or... I could be really f-ing wrong.


Niffer said...

I like the way you're looking at this situation. You're not saying that curse words are banned forever - you're just saying that they're allowed once a person has the ability to understand when they're appropriate and when they are insulting. That makes a lot of sense to me.

mjh said...

Well, they're banned pretty much forever in the presence of my wife. I'm hoping that by the time they are 20-somethings, they won't need me to enforce that. They'll just know that their mom doesn't like that kind of thing, and I'm hoping that they'll respect that.

Additionally, as they get older, I expect that they will experiment with language that would be banned inside our house. I will discourage that - even outside of our house. But I know full well that I can't control their tongues. They must. And I would be, I think, a fool to prevent them from learning the consequences of a mismanaged tongue. I'd rather that they learn these consequences in high school and college rather than at a job.

So from a practical point of view, I expect that when my teenagers start using bad language around me, I will likely just comment on it. Maybe saying something like, "Well, son, I hope you can keep friends with that language of yours. It can be pretty easy to accidentally hurt someone talking like that. But I'm sure you can handle it either way. Good luck."

If I've done my job, the last two sentences should kick of some uncertainty in their brains. I'm hoping that those types of sentences from me will bring up all kinds of other times where I said something similar and turned out to be right, and it really sucked for them.

I am totally convinced that the reason that 60-year olds drive 45 in a 55 zone is because they remember all of the screwups they made driving 70. But 20 year olds don't have any such memory so they aren't careful. I'm hoping that my children will start making relatively painless screwups as early as possible so that they'll have a memory of it when the stakes are higher.

mjh said...

Geez, I'm wordy.

Niffer said...

Another example of how you seem to be living proof of how Love and Logic can work.

Wordy, yes, but that's why I like you. =)

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