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Bad Words: Let’s Talk about Cussing in Middle School

When my girls were in the 2nd grade, they came home one day and told me boys in their class had said some “bad words”. I had been anticipating this moment for a while and was ready to explain to them some of the words they had heard.

“What did they say?” I asked.

They called someone STUPID!” They replied.

OK… I thought. Maybe I’ve been too overprotective. Other children in their school were surely using actual four-letter words. I didn’t want my girls to grow up too fast, but I worried they might look foolish if I sheltered them too much. “If they think stupid is a bad word,” I wondered, “What would happen if one of them actually gets called a cuss word? Will other kids laugh at them for being so naive?”

Thus began my daughter’s education in “inappropriate language”. That day, I explained the difference between a cuss word and a put down. “Both are not nice,” I explained, “but cuss words are types of words that are considered really offensive and can get you (and even grown-ups) in trouble, depending on where and how you use them.”

Flash forward to middle school

Now that my girls are in middle school, I hear cuss words abound. As an educator, I understand that in some sense, cussing is a rite of passage.

In the 4th and 5th grades, I heard the boys were ramping up cussing on the playground. This made sense because using “adult language” is a guaranteed way for tweens to signify they aren’t “little” anymore. For middle schoolers, cussing becomes a way to individuate from adults, to push boundaries and test limits. Thus, I wasn’t surprised to hear the girls report they were hearing more and more cussing when they entered middle school.

So, we get that it’s “normal” for tweens/teens to want to cuss. That said, adolescence is a time when kids are testing out what it means to be an adult. Learning what happens when you make “good” vs. “bad” choices. Just because adults can cuss whenever they want, dropping the f-bomb one too many times at work may cost you a promotion. (Unless, that is, you work in the Hip-Hop music industry. Then by all means. Use it liberally.)

It’s not the words themselves, but they way they’re used

The point I’m trying to make is that cussing isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself. In fact, there may be perfectly “appropriate” times to cuss. (When you bang your thumb with a hammer for example.) The issue I’m interested in discussing is how and where is cussing used. Are adults talking with tweens/teens about the ways they use language? What is the impact of this language on the ways people view them? How does cussing contribute to or detract from a positive learning environment?

Just as we wouldn’t expect toddlers not to bite other toddlers from time to time, we can’t expect tweens/teens not to try our cussing. This is precisely the reason we should be talking with teens about it. Rather than assuming it’s going to happen and not address it.

So, I decided to talk to my daughter…

I didn’t push this conversation on my kids, mind you. After hearing about the rampant cussing at my girls’ school, my girls brought the topic up with me.

It first started when one of my girls was called a b*tch in the counselor’s office and it wasn’t addressed. Another daughter said she was bothered to hear the word f*ggot all the time. (She knows it’s a derogatory word like the n-word, and doesn’t like being around homophobic language.) I myself have heard kids yell “c*nt” across the yard and have seen staff ignore it. Even when cussing hasn’t been directed at them, these experiences have contributed to my girls feeling unsafe on the yard and in the hallways. And it has affected their feelings about their new school.

Let’s Talk about Cussing

After several frustrating attempts to get the school administration to deal with our school cussing problem, me and one of my daughters decided to do a video interview. I asked her, “What’s your experience with cussing and “inappropriate language” at your school? How do school staff handle cussing and derogatory language?” Here’s what she had to say…

[I’ve since had to remove this content from YouTube because my daughter says she was teased to speaking about this on my blog.

Basically, she states she doesn’t like all the cussing at Middle School. I ask if it’s directed at her. She says no, but it makes the school feel unsafe. We discuss the difference between using cuss words like the f-word to express extreme emotion, vs. directing it at someone. Either way, we conclude it is something that should be discussed and addressed by educators. Unfortunately, this wasn’t something my daughters were experiencing from site leadership at the time.]


What message are we sending?

Some adults may see cussing as a right of passage and write it off as an unfortunate developmental phase. These folks may argue we shouldn’t make such a big deal about it. Focusing on it might only make it worse.

I disagree.

Our job is to support kids in becoming successful adults and community members. What message are we sending them when we see them using cuss words and derogatory terms with regularity in spaces that we’ve designated for “higher learning”? High functioning students don’t use f-bombs in their dissertations at Harvard. And customer service rep’s know when to turn off the four-letter-words when they are at work. In fact, many people could get fired (or even sued!) for using these types of words often. So, why are we OK with kids using them in schools?

And on a really basic level, cussing and verbal “play fighting” can lead to some very real fights. One only needs to look at Trump to see how his rhetoric has amplified hate speech and hate crimes across the nation. According to a recent study by the Southern Poverty Law Center much of this, unfortunately is occurring in K-12 schools.

What do you think? What’s your experience with cussing and “inappropriate language” at your child’s school? How do your child’s teachers handle cussing and derogatory language? What are school policies or programs? Share in the comments below.

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4 thoughts on “Bad Words: Let’s Talk about Cussing in Middle School

  1. She’s so great. Thanks for posting. I think it’s a tricky thing because “foul language” is essentially just a social construction. Arbitrary arrangements of letters. Someone using those words is still capable of being a loyal friend, a kind soul, and a wonderful and thoughtful student. Also, the more adults penalize language, the more children at this age are drawn to its use. There is an appropriate lashing out and exploration of freedom that occurs during middle school. Like toddlers who suddenly proclaim, “No!” — middle schoolers who defy conventionally held notions of acceptability and authority are behaving somewhat appropriately & predictably. I think it’s best to treat it as fairly benign. More hallway supervision sounds like a good thing, however. It’s best to treat it in an unruffled fashion. “Appropriate language, please” with a smile. Becoming punitive and the “desire to punish” seems atypically aggressive. Racial slurs are different. They aren’t arbitrary; there is a purpose and history of causing hurt. The words fuck, shit, or asshole aren’t targeting anyone, but racial slurs are. Charming, effective, and funny teachers can deal with the overuse of foul language in a playful manner in class – perhaps performing a skit of over-using a silly word like “elbow” and performing the absurdity of rampant use in front of the class in a funny way. And talking about the creativity needed to expand one’s vocabulary. Humor and charm are more likely to slowly penetrate habits and psyches than punishment, which seems authoritarian for benign language use. Racial slurs, however, are not benign and should be dealt with more seriously. PS A middle school teacher I know habituated his students to saying “What’s up, my ninja?” instead of that other term. I don’t know if he came up with that or if it’s a common thing (ninja) – but it seemed like an interesting approach to a word that we, as adults, and even many students!, might prefer not to hear in the halls. I share this to talk about how humor and lightheartedness and joy should accompany these conversations, not punishment. 🙂

    1. I like the idea of discussing the importance of words with students. I agree that a punitive approach would do more to encourage “bad language” rather than help students take ownership of the impact their words have on others. Worlds also have a different impact on different people. By encouraging discussion, it’s an opportunity for students to work with educators in defining the ways they want to respectfully communicate with one another.

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