Policing speech is
bullshit not something I love about working with teenagers. When somebody swears in youth group, I proffer the required, “Hey, let’s watch our language.” But my heart’s not in it. It feels like one of those things that we do to teenagers in church but not to adults, scolding them when they curse. Worse, calling out one student’s profanity sets a precedent that you have to maintain with everybody else. It’s exhausting.
No, I prefer a somewhat selective profanity patrolling strategy. Certain choice words and expressions earn an immediate rebuke, but many, many others get either gently chastised or flatly tolerated (sidenote: racist and sexist terminology, as well as slurs like “gay” and “retarded” are no-go’s in my youth group, but those feel like a category of speech distinct from profanity, one far easier to denounce).
I find it is simply easier on me as a leader to let some profanity slide.
It’s not about me, though, is it? It is about preventing offense to others in the community, especially those who lack the power or voice to respond to speech that offends them. If I wink at a certain level of profanity, then anyone who takes offense to it is left to themselves to oppose it. In a mixed-gender community of youth, especially early adolescents, this is more than a matter of individual sensitivities. Permitting a level of coarseness in the group’s speech exposes vulnerable people to continued offense.
I’m coming to think the cussing talk should happen early in youth group and should be quite specific in what words and expressions are forbidden and why. You can get as specific as the nastiness of the word’s referents, or you lean on slightly more elevated standards of decorum, but you should land somewhere. Don’t assume we’re all on the same page about what’s okay to say when we’re together and what isn’t. State the expectations clearly and uphold them.
Of course, this probably demands consequences for violations of those expectations. Otherwise you get a watch-your-mouth arms race that can’t end in anything constructive. I’ve had students use vulgarity to me personally over and over again for the sheer delight of watching my growing irritation. They knew I wasn’t going to do anything more than tell them to stop, only a little more forcefully each time.
Policing profanity in youth group
sucks feels exhausting. But to build a community of mutuality and respect among students, it’s probably worth the effort.