What to do? Small things and big things.

I was sitting in the church office in St. Andrew’s House (where I also live) updating the church’s computer. The office used to be one of the rooms for the doorman when the building was the monastic house of the Cowley Fathers (Society of St. John the Evangelist), and so is right at the main entrance.
The children’s choir was practicing upstairs in the library and doing quite a good job. Soon, they stared bounding down the stairs. Two guys, around 11 years of age, good kids, came down first by themselves and I heard, “something something something, ‘damn’, something something something…”
Now, I know in comparison to students being shot to death hearing the word, “damn,” coming from an 11 year olds lips is quite minor. Yet, I stopped them as they neared the main door and said something like, “What did I hear?” They looked at me all quizzically like, and said, “huh?” I then added, “what was this about something something something, ‘damn’ something something?” They then dismissed me, continued talking to one another, and walked out.
Now, being dismissed for calling them on swearing doesn’t surprise me or really bother me. I understand it, but this minor incident does bring up a couple things.
First, why bother with such seemingly minor stuff?
When I was working as a missionary to college students in Europe, primarily in Munich, Germany, the family I lived with had a son around 5 years of age. He used to get all over me when I would say words like “shoot” or “dang” or some seemingly innocuous nothing word. His mom didn’t allow him to swear. Now, I thought this was a bit extreme, until she told me why even those words were out of bounds for her children. Do you know why they were out of bounds?
As the mom said, “There are so many very good and precise English words that can be used to express what you are thinking or feelings. I want my kids to use real words and not just filler words.” I like that. So, calling the kids on using a word like “damn” is to call them, at least from my perspective, to use real words – to be smart.
Secondly, many of the kids use swear words because they think it is “adult.” Now, in New York the “F-bomb” if an average New Yorker’s, “ah.” Saying “damn” is minor, yet it is something. If the kids yield to peer pressure and the belief that they will be more “something” if they use these words, smoke this stuff, do these things – which are all generally negative and play into their own natural rebelliousness – what is it leading them towards? Maturity? A strong and positive sense of self? True humility and right pride? Compassion? Strength? Intelligence? Self-control? I don’t think it leads to any of these things, but more towards insecurity, an expression of self that is ultimately personally and collectively destructive, and a form of bondage to what others demand that they be.
Incidentally, as adults, we have a responsibility to be an example for them that demonstrates the best of human potential, that which elevates the society to greater forms of civility, of positive expression, and altruism, not to banality and base, purulent behavior.
The question is how best to discourage what is not productive and not beautiful or not good, and how best to encourage the pursuit of the beautiful and the good – for Christians, to love God with all our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Calling them on such things is part of it, but as they dismissed me in my lame attempt to be funny and corrective at the same time, sometimes the way we do just doesn’t work. Sadly, sometimes our example compounds the problem.
Perhaps I could have been more direct with less of an attempt to soften the chastisement (which I admit came from a place of insecurity on my part). Instead, perhaps I should have called them on it seriously and with authority and with explanation of why those kinds of words are inappropriate – be smart, don’t give in to peer pressure, let the words that come from your mouth be honoring to God, have a secure sense of self and recognize that growing up and being adult doesn’t been you have to incorporate into yourselves the worst of our humanity. Who knows?
You think this all a bit much to hang on a four-letter word? Mayor Giuliani demonstrated to New Yorker’s that if you focus on the small things, the big things tend to take care of themselves. Even his worst political opponents give him credit for that.
These are small things, but the more we call kids to grow into their better selves in the small things, I think the more we enable the big things to take care of themselves.