The Importance of Language–Or: Why I Threw My Teenage Son's CDs into the Trash Can

The language kids hear and use certainly has changed since I was a youngster. What would have seemed shocking and extremely rude to almost everyone 40 years ago is now commonplace in the United States. Despite the prevalence of profanity in movies, schools, and on the street, we parents do not have to allow offensive language in our homes. The problem for me was how to explain the reasons behind my "old-fashioned" rule to my "with-it" teenager.

When children are younger, simple explanations suffice: "We don’t use those words because they’re not polite." Teenagers, however, glory in their ability to use logical arguments to confound and exasperate their parents. "They’re just words. Words aren’t intrinsically good or bad," insisted our son Luke. Although these scenarios seem humorous years later, getting through what some call "the obnoxious years" can be a challenge. It’s hard to counter some of our kids’ clever arguments on the spot.

When Luke was about 12 years old, we allowed him to sign up for a mail-order music club, which he paid for out of his allowance. Every month he would receive a package of CDs, either the featured selection or an alternative he had chosen. What we didn’t realize for many months, since he played the CDs using headphones in his room, was that many of his choices were labeled "Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics." It was only after I read a few articles in the newspaper about eminem (Marshall Mathers does not capitalize his stage name) and other popular recording stars that I became concerned about what Luke was listening to. When asked, he admitted to owning numerous CDs by eminem and other hip-hop and rap performers whose lyrics are violent, degrade women, and promote what in my opinion is a distorted view of sexuality.

So I had to think through and write down my reasons for wanting to censor my son’s listening choices. He has been raised a Friend since birth, although in our small meeting it has not always been possible to provide the kind of First-day school experience that I wanted him to have. Quakers have focused on the power of language since the beginnings of our Religious Society. Perhaps that is one reason I have been very concerned about the vocabulary to which my son is exposed.

My major argument was "garbage in, garbage out," the effect of sensory input on the brain. What we experience, even vicariously through movies, music, books, magazines, television, and the virtual reality of computers and video games, affects our moods, our personalities, our outlook on the world, and our responses to other people.

When we unconsciously adopt the speech patterns of people we spend a lot of time with, as most young people do, we assimilate their values as well. When children hear derogatory or disrespectful language, they incorporate the words into their vocabularies and the accompanying attitudes into their personalities. Prejudices and habits learned early are hard to change. Recently a young mother commented to me somewhat ruefully that her two-year-old already says the f-word. Hearing a group disparaged through jokes or disrespectful labels, such as when adult women are called girls or bitches, encourages the adoption of stereotypes. We may not even be aware of our racist, sexist, or sectarian attitudes.

I also wanted to persuade my son of the importance of language in general. He was not totally convinced of my point of view and our dialogue on this topic continues, but he reluctantly turned over the Parental Guidance CDs (for which we reimbursed him) and now makes an effort to use language that is acceptable to me. This caused quite a stir among some of the other teens and preteens in First-day school. "Don’t let my mom hear what your mom did!" "Did she actually break them up and throw them in a dumpster?"

The words we use tell a lot about us. Language is not only how we express our thoughts; it reflects cultural norms and personal values. Using language that puts into practice our Quaker testimonies is a way of demonstrating to others what we believe.

One of the main Quaker values is simplicity. Simplicity to Quakers means truthfulness, sticking to essentials, and avoiding clutter and ostentation, in language and possessions as well as in actions. In 1691, according to Geoffrey Hubbard in Quaker by Convincement, Friends were advised to "take care to keep to truth and plainness in language, habit, deportment, and behavior." The plain speech and plain dress of traditional Friends recognized the equality of all people. George Fox wrote in his Journal, "Moreover when the Lord sent me forth into the world, he forbade me to put off my hat to any high or low; and I was required to ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ all men and women without any respect to rich or poor, great or small." Quakers do not swear to tell the truth in court. As Jesus taught, that act casts doubt on the truthfulness of our everyday speech.

Another Quaker value is peace. Conflict can often be avoided by treating other people with respect, through our words as well as our actions. Compared to people from many other cultures, people in mainstream U.S. culture tend to be impulsive, impolite, and impatient. Japanese tradition, for instance, places great value on harmony in interpersonal relations. In fact, Japanese courtesy and formality may seem exaggerated to us. In my study of Japanese language and culture I came across these examples: On a package of ramen noodles, "Please place our humble noodles in your honorable pot." On a T-shirt, "This suit places much importance on the wearer." As a result of this emphasis on politeness, as well as for other cultural reasons, the Japanese live in a much less violent society than we do. Although crime rates in Japan are rising, they are still much lower than in the United States.

People in the United States, in general, need to cultivate habits of courtesy and forethought. We often blurt out words without thinking about how they will impact the hearers. Some politicians have gotten in trouble in this way, alienating potential supporters or even having to resign their offices because of thoughtless, insensitive remarks. Last week in the post office a man in a hurry cut in line ahead of some German tourists and then made a gloating, self-satisfied remark. I felt compelled to apologize to the visitors. Lack of respect and restraint in language can escalate conflicts. The world would be a more peaceful place if all of us were more conscious in our speech.

The Bible offers important guides for language. The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20: 1-17) include, "Do not testify falsely against your neighbor" and "Do not misuse the name of the Lord your god." (New Living Translation). God’s name is sacred and not to be cheapened with irreverent use. In our secular society, "God" as an expletive or exclamation is very commonly used, perhaps because God is not real to most people. Older Friends also frowned on the use of "minced oaths," expressions such as gosh, golly, geeze, gee whiz, and Jiminy Cricket, which are derived from the names Jesus, Christ, and God. One of the members of our meeting tells of being eldered years ago for using these apparently harmless expressions.

A parallel example is sexuality. Sex is used to sell all sorts of products from beer and tools to cars and clothing. Sexuality is no longer something special and private between two people, but a way of shocking and titillating people via magazines, movies, music, and television. The sexualization of language reflects our culture’s exploitation of and disrespect for women and for the miraculous bodies we are blessed to inhabit. Again something special and sacred becomes cheapened by the casual use of irreverent language.

When obscenities are used frequently enough, they become meaningless to the speaker, just a habit of speech such as adding "you know," "like," or other empty phrases. But they still retain their offensiveness to many hearers and convey some of the worst attitudes and aspects of our culture.

Similar to the Ten Commandments are the Boddhisatva vows of Buddhism. Four of them concern language: being truthful, not gossiping, not speaking poorly of others, and not making ourselves out to be better than we are. Talking about other people, especially when they are not present, is fraught with temptation. It is easy to be judgmental or to gloat over someone else’s mistakes, to think or say, "I told you so." The standards of the International Rotary Club are worth considering. Here is the Rotarians’ Four Way Test of the things we think, say, or do:

  1. Is it the truth?
  2. Is it fair to all concerned?
  3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
  4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Taking the time to ask ourselves these questions before speaking would certainly slow down some conversations, but the results would probably be very beneficial.

Our son is now 21 years old, legally an adult, and I cannot monitor or control his environment the way I did when he was younger. I can only suggest that he pay attention to the kind of atmosphere in which he chooses to immerse himself. For the past three summers, to my great delight, he has chosen to work as a counselor at Farm and Wilderness, a group of six camps in Vermont that encourage Quaker values. One of the rules is no profanity. It was very encouraging when Luke wrote us and described one of the boys under his care who obviously impressed him, a 15-year-old who "is very helpful, obedient, and respectful. He is a great influence on the other campers. He does not swear as a matter of philosophy."

Even if our teenagers consider us boring and backward, our efforts to model what we believe and to influence them towards more conscious speech do have an effect. Luke still likes eminem’s rhymes and considers him a talented lyricist who tells good stories, but he admits that our dialogue has led him to pay more attention to language. So far he’s taken two college linguistics courses and several psychology classes to learn how what we perceive affects how we think and how we relate to the world.

A most encouraging development in our family is that my son, my husband, and I are now all reading (and attempting to practice) Nonviolent Communication, an excellent guide to being more compassionate in our speech, written by Marshall B. Rosenberg. It is perhaps the best book I have read that promotes Quakerly values in language via an easy-to-understand format.

To be more conscious of what our words are saying to ourselves and to others takes effort and attention. When our language and actions are congruent with our values, that’s integrity. Conscious, compassionate speech and writing are goals worth striving towards. Destroying our son’s CDs was a very unsubtle form of parental guidance, but for our family it was the beginning of a valuable and continuing exploration of language.