Words Can Hurt Us. Especially the Bad Ones.

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Sometimes when people ask what I do for a living, I tell them I count profanities in movies. That’s not entirely true, of course, but it is an important part of my job.

But why is it important? In a culture that grows ever coarser and, linguistically, less creative, it’s a fair question. And today, we bring you one of the best people I know to answer it.

As the director of Parenting and Youth for Focus on the Family, Joannie DeBrito (Ph.D., LCSW, LMFT) is an expert on how culture can impact and influence us, especially our sons and daughters. For 30 years she’s been helping families navigate life’s perils and pitfalls as a family educator, social worker and mental health professional. Oh, and she’s a parent of two herself, so all her professional experience comes with a healthy dollop of I’ve-been-in-your-shoes know-how. In my opinion, she’s one of the wisest, kindest voices at Focus on the Family—and when it comes to how the flotsam in the culture can impact us and our children, she knows what she’s talking about.

So with that preamble out of the way, let me turn the floor over to Joannie DeBrito and allow her to share her wisdom with you directly.

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Joannie DeBrito, director of Parenting and Youth at Focus on the Family

You know that saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me?”  Have you ever wondered who wrote that and what planet he or she came from?

Not only do words have the power to cause hurt and pain, but sometimes they inflict far more damage than a stick or a stone, and the scars may last far longer than that of a physical wound. People may spend years in therapy trying to erase the memory and consequences of destructive words that were said to them.

Words have power, for good or ill. They have the power to encourage, uplift and provide vivid descriptions that go beyond those that can be seen, heard, tasted, smelled or touched. How many times have you heard someone say, “The book was so much better than the movie!”? Editors spend their lives explaining the subtleties between different but similar words, and truly talented writers are able to make a story come to life by mastering the patterning and timing of words and phrases.

And so, it’s hard for me to understand why screenwriters, musicians and authors seem to believe that one word—the f-word—can be substituted for all of the other wonderfully specific nouns, verbs and adjectives that are part of the 200,000+ words in the English language.

On the one hand, this word has the power to be degrading and downright insulting, but its overuse also reveals laziness in writing at best and ignorance and a lack of literacy at worst. I can understand why, in an effort to be culturally relevant, movies use the word at times, although I’d argue that there are usually myriad words that would be more appropriate. It’s the gratuitous use of this word that is especially troubling to me, particularly when it’s used as a term of endearment.

This is one of those situations that may be a case of the so-called “slippery slope”. This word was not allowed to be used in a movie until 1970. Now, 50 years later, it’s hard to find a contemporary movie or book without the “f” word. Certain musicians seem to use the word, as nouns, verbs and adjectives whenever they can’t think of a word that’s more appropriate. In the movie-rating system, any movie with more than two instances of this word cannot typically receive a PG-13 rating. And once you get past a PG-13 rating, well, there are no limits. For example, Adam Holz reported in this movie review:

All told, well more than 700 profanities, vulgarities and obscenities crowd every square inch of The Wolf of Wall Street. And a handful more than 525 are f-words, with some used sexually and others getting combined with ‘mother.’ (It’s the most f-words Plugged In has ever counted in a movie, and is being reported as the most f-words in any mainstream non-documentary movie ever made.)

Furthermore, as the f-word has been used more in various forms of media, it has crept into places that were previously reserved for only civil exchanges. Do you remember a certain vice president commenting to a president after he signed healthcare reform legislation into law that “this is a big f—ing deal”? Or a speech by a longtime actor at an award ceremony that stated his political opinion by saying “F—  (the president)!” There are many examples of politicians from both parties casually dropping f-bombs to make a point, express their anger or try to be funny.

And that’s the problem for parents.

You know that kids tend to be eager to emulate their heroes on the screen, in the pages of a book and those who perform live in concert. So, when they hear the f-word being bantered about, many simply repeat what they hear. It has become such a part of popular culture, kids frequently default to using it when they’re talking, often with no understanding of what they’re saying.

But even if children may not fully understand what they’re saying, those who listen to them are often quite aware. The words we use tend to reflect the emotions in our hearts and people respond to us, and form opinions of us, based on what we say to them. So, when kids regularly use profanity in the presence of their teachers, employers and others who are in a position to help them reach their goals, the impression they leave is not a good one. Furthermore, profanity is often used to express anger and doing so can set a child up to look like a bully or a defiant child.

There are so many better ways to cope with anger, such as engaging in healthy physical activities or using words that actually communicate what is being felt well. Most importantly, there are numerous ways to express positive emotions, and throwing an f-word in the sentence just diminishes the value of the message. Your children will likely have healthier relationships and be in a better position to collaborate with adults of influence in their lives if they can be articulate when they converse with others, rather than peppering their language with profanity.

So, my suggestion is to pay attention to the movies your kids are watching, what they’re reading,  and who and what they’re listening to. And, if you notice that the f- word is fairly prevalent in the media they’re consuming, challenge them to think about how that might be affecting the way they think and behave. Take some time to expose them to some old and new movies, books and music that provide a broader exposure to the exciting and inviting world of the English language.

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For more guidance on how to deal with profanity in your home—especially if your child is using it—Focus on the Family has several resources that may help. For example, check out:

When Your Child Uses Profanity

What the Bible Says About “Swearing” and “Dirty Words”