HOW TO TALK TO TEENAGERS ABOUT INAPPROPRIATE LANGUAGE
Written by Aaron Helman
Several years ago, when I was still young enough to do it, I was playing basketball with a group of teenagers in our church gym. A shot went up, there was jostling for position under the basket, a poorly executed attempt at a box out, several simultaneous leaps, and that’s when I heard the curse word.
The game came to a grinding halt as everyone began to look for the mouth from whence the curse word had come. It was pretty easy to tell which mouth had spouted the word.
It was the mouth that was bleeding.
This poor kid had just taken an inadvertent elbow to the jaw and the jaw was already swelling. It was a gnarly shot.
We raced into action. There were ice packs and rubber gloves and alcohol swabs from a well-stocked First Aid Kit. I sat with the kid, ensuring that he was going to be okay, and that’s when he looked at me and asked:
How much trouble am I in for yelling that curse word?
I was a little dumbfounded at first. He wasn’t in any trouble at all. Of course he wasn’t. I wasn’t even going to mention it. If I’m honest, I might have said the same word in the exact same situation.
So why did he think he was going to be in trouble? It’s because I’d been pretty militant and legalistic in my teaching about appropriate language.
I learned something important that day. It was time to change the way I taught about appropriate language.
IT HELPS YOU HOLD STUDENTS TO A HIGHER STANDARD
Wait? Really? Losing the legalism actually helps us hold students to a higher standard?
Yes. Yes it does.
Legalistic language conversations tend to devolve into a thousand conversations about what words are appropriate or in appropriate. I’ve had these talks a thousand times.
“Is it okay to say ‘sucks’?”
“What if I say freakin’ instead of, well, you know?”
“But the D-word is in the Bible! Does that make it okay?”
Here’s the thing. There are literally hundreds of words that could be classified as curse words, and most of those are context-dependent anyway. Developing a rulebook for all of them would be impossible to write.
That’s why the Bible didn’t try to do it. Instead the Bible says:
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths… – Ephesians 4:29
Let there be not filthiness nor foolish talk… – Ephesians 5:4
Put away from you crooked speech… – Proverbs 4:24
See what I mean? That’s a much higher standard than a list of twelve or fifteen dirty words that Christians shouldn’t say.
APPROPRIATE LANGUAGE GOES SO FAR BEYOND CURSE WORDS
Here’s a question that might make you feel a little uncomfortable. Which is more harmful to the person hearing it, yelling a curse word when you hit your thumb with a hammer or telling a person that they’re useless and that the world would be better off without them?
Absolutely, the answer is the second one.
There are a thousand genuinely hurtful ways to insult a person without using a curse word and our students need to understand that those insults also fall under the purview of what the Bible calls appropriate and inappropriate language.
I don’t want my students to use curse words or have potty* mouths, but I am convinced the more important lesson is teaching them that the command of Scripture is to use our words to build one another up, not tear each other down.
* My grandmother is still convinced that the word “potty” is an offensive and naughty word. She’s aghast when my four-year-old says it. She asks, “Where did you learn that!?” Here’s another reason why legalism is no good for language. Society’s definitions of naughty words are constantly changing, and we shouldn’t be taking our moral and spiritual cues from society.
BUILD ONE ANOTHER UP
If I have to give my students a hard and fast rule for watching their language, it’s going to be this one. Here’s the rest of Ephesians 4:29:
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.
When a student shows up with those legalistic questions, I’ll point them to this verse. This verse is at least as concerned with why we speak than it is with what we say.
It’s a check of our hearts and our tongues.
Jesus was concerned with both of those things.
We should be too.
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Written by Aaron Helman. Aaron has been in youth ministry for over 15 years and is currently a youth pastor in South Bend, Indiana.