Children who curse, and the power of words

Today was a rough day at work.  My schedule of 10 patients for the afternoon rapidly ballooned into 17.  People were sick and miserable.  Those who were healthy were frustrated by the long wait.  I heard myself apologizing over and over to each family.

The day was mostly a chaotic blur.  Babies crying, phones ringing, parents reprimanding children on the brink of a meltdown.  I don’t remember much of it, except one moment.

“F*ck you!”

I heard it from my desk.  It came from the 4 year old girl I had just seen.

She had every reason to be mad and scared.  She was getting several vaccines and that is never fun.  But I was unprepared to hear her curse out my medical assistants while also spitting at them.

People can debate the rights or wrongs of cursing, but that seems beside the point to me.  The word itself is somewhat irrelevant, determined by language and culture.  The intention and emotion behind words is what carries weight and makes words come alive.  This is the difference between a young child repeating a curse word without intention, versus a child who has learned to use it with the purpose to insult.  As words come alive, they can either tear down or build up.  They can be more dangerous than physical aggression, because words leave no evidence and often go unnoticed.  It starts young.  In the home.  At the local playground.

When I heard the young girl curse at my medical assistant, I felt so discouraged.  A 4 year old, already empowered to attack viciously with words.  A 4 year old, fully aware that adults in her life do the very same without any shame or regret.  A 4 year old who has grown up faster than she needed to.  Am I alone here in thinking this is just so sad?  It goes beyond the question of how to clean up your child’s potty mouth.  I feel a tragedy in this that I know is just a glimpse into the tragedy taking place in many young lives across the nation and throughout the world.  A childhood lost is rarely regained.

I am passionate about the power of words.  We are a nation that prides itself in the freedom of speech, but that freedom must be rooted in some respect and responsibility.  I value the ability of words to encourage, challenge, strengthen, guide, and give hope.

I am also passionate about our impact as role models for younger generations.  We can help set standards, not only in how we use words verbally to one another, but also in how we use our words in social media.  We can monitor for bullying, whether it’s in school or on the internet.  We can admit our own hypocrisy and ask them to call us out on it.  We can pay close attention to what our kids and their friends are saying.  Most importantly, we can focus on the heart behind the words, challenging our kids to grow in compassion and kindness towards others, starting in everyday issues like popularity and appearance.

Our children are listening and watching.  Hopefully we are giving them an earful for the better.

Yolanda Wong is a pediatrician who blogs at Well Child Chats.

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