This was the question that was posed to me by my 10 year old son. It was actually a really sweet moment that tested my theology, my own convictions, and my parenting.
A couple of weeks ago, I was reading a book on my bed and my son climbed into bed and asked this question, "How old do you have to be to start cussing?" I immediately went on a witch hunt to find out what dirty friend of his was poisoning his mind. But before I could get too far down that road, my own life and actions betrayed me. For I have been known to use colorful language from time to time. And now, my loose lips are sinking ships. Well, they may not be sinking ships, but they are setting up some moral dissonance for my kid and forced a gut check for me.
But the more we talked and the more clarity I gained for my own personal language choices, and for the way I am going to move forward with my son.
How would you rank all the cuss words?
After the initial shock of the question, I decided to jump right in. We made a list of cuss words and then ranked them from worst to whatever is the not worst bad words. :) In my mind, I know what I think are acceptable cuss words and which ones are the big no, no's. But hearing this list from my son gave me fresh insight.
What word would you say is the worst? The F-Word? At this point, my daughter who is 7 comes in and wants to know what we are talking about. She asks what the F-Word is and then wants to know if there is an O-Word and an L-Word. (She is obviously not quite ready for this conversation, so she got punted)
What my son chose as the worst word of all time both shocked and impressed me. He chose the N-Word. Now, we live in Northern California and the area we live in is very liberal, and has very few African-Americans. I have no idea how he even knows that that word even exists. But because of our context, Black History Month, or something else, he knows that the N-Word is the worst. He won't even say it out loud. It is the Voldemort of cuss words.
I asked him why the N-Word was so bad and he began to instruct me of our country's history and how that word had been used throughout history. It actually made me pretty proud. And how cool that my 10 year old son knew by school and by his own intuition that words that crush the humanity out of someone are the worst words and words we should never use.
This realization helped put all the cuss words into their right categories.
1) CUSS WORDS USED TO DEHUMANIZE
There are a number of words that fall into this category. Starting with the N-Word rolling all the way down to PG-13 words like A-Hole, to common words that aren't cussing at all like Jerk and Idiot. These are the worst of the worst words.
Jesus, on the Sermon on the Mount, talks about how anyone who calls someone a fool is in danger of the fires of hell. That is no joke. Name calling, dehumanizing, is the worst thing we can do. And when we use cuss words to punctuate the dehumanization, then we are in even bigger trouble. So according to this categorization, it seems to me that cussing to dehumanize someone is never acceptable.
I told him, that if I catch him speaking in anyway that dehumanizes someone, cuss words or not, he is in big, big trouble. And it was a good reminder to keep my own mouth in check as well.
2) CUSS WORDS USED AS GENERIC ADJECTIVES
This brought us to our next category, dirty words used as adjectives. This seems to be the most common form of cussing that I hear among our students and even my peers. Everything is like, really, good or bad. Like. Really. Good. All these words are interchangeable with every cuss word on the planet.
It is amazing to me how many cuss words someone can get into one sentence. Middle school boys have mastered this. As they try out this new found world of cussing, they seem to have some sort of personal challenge to get in as many in as possible.
The English language is pretty amazing. In fact there are so many descriptive words out there and when we limit our descriptors by simply punctuating simple adjectives with cuss words then we are proving how ignorant and stupid we really are. We are noble people who should use our words well. We don't prove to the world how stupid we are by limiting our vocabulary.
Using this rubric, we don't cuss to simply use generic adjectives. While I am prepared for my son to walk down this well worn road that every middle school boy has walked before, my son knows that it is not acceptable in our house to not use words in this way. This isn't a spiritual conviction, but rather family value that longs to use language appropriately. Which leads to the final category.
3) CUSS WORDS AS PUNCTUATED ADJECTIVES
There are times throughout life that seem to call for more colorful language. There is a time when one might experience instant pain by stubbing a toe, falling down, or about to get into a car crash. Shoot or darn just don't seem to cut it. Sometimes days are more then just lousy or crummy.
Cuss words are adjectives and sometimes they are the right word for the situation. And when that situation presents itself, then I think using the right adjective to describe the situation is appropriate. Thankfully, there are very few circumstances or days for a 10 year old that warrant using PG-13 language.
So, if the word is the right word to describe something, then I think I am open to the fact that my son may use that word. But since most cussing among young people is in categories one and two, those are the two categories that I will fight all day against and to help my son avoid.
Does cussing impact your testimony?
This question was posed to me recently. And, like all things, I think that this is actually situational. As a younger man who wanted to have a strong testimony among my peers, cussing and drinking were two areas I chose to abstain from to mark my life as one set apart.
In my late teens and early 20's when the whole world was drinking their guts out and speaking in ways that would make sailors blush, I chose to draw a firm line in the sand so it would be clear that I was a Christian.
Looking back, I still think that this was a noble choice and would still make that choice today. But as a 40 year old man, cussing and drinking isn't what marks my life as different, as noble, or as Christian. If I think that not cussing is the main marker to distinguish me as a follower of Christ, then I have missed it, and those around me are getting the wrong idea of what being a Christian is.
My life should be marked by the fruits of the spirit, by humility, mercy, and justice. And the longer I live in community, my prayer is that people see a life that is transformed and redeemed by my gracious and long-suffering Heavenly Father. I hope that my testimony is not that I don't cuss, but that the words I use build up people, advocates for the dignity of all people, and elevates the humanity of people who are all made in the image of God.
May we all be careful with our language and use language that is vibrant and beautiful and that never crushes or dehumanizes people who are made in the very image of the God who loves and saves us.