“Ms. Lacrete, Ms. Lacrete! Carlyle said a bad word!”
Most of the time, when a student complains to me that someone in class said a bad word to them, the recourse is to sit the two students down, and figure out what made them so upset as to curse in the first place.
My students are only seven or eight years old, so insults come in all shapes and sizes, from mild (he called me “mean”) to slightly sexist (she’s so bossy) to misguided (she’s a liar because she’s trying to get her own way) to big no-nos, i.e. words I actually use all the time in my personal life (he’s an a**hole).
My students tend to use “bad words” in one of two ways: to express general disgust (this sucks!) or to express a specific complaint (you suck!).
Modeling Substitutes for Bad Words. Well… Trying To…
I’ve tried to model appropriate methods of expressing general disgust. We play a competitive quiz game every now and then. If you miss a question or two, and lose your 1st place status, give it a “aw shucks,” and move on. I made the whole class mimic me, and I’d use the same phrase when I lose a stack of papers, or lost the pen to the smart board.
But, I have not heard a single student say “aw shucks” unprompted. It just didn’t catch on. According to NPR, kids learn curse words and phrases from adults, but can’t quite be fooled into using language that feels forced or unnatural. Some expletives roll off the tongue better than others.
Bad Words? No, Bad Usage
The word “liar” is a big one in my class. As mentioned, Mary was rightfully frustrated that Anna called her a liar, because Mary insists she didn’t tell any lies. And Anna doesn’t like being called bossy. What happened was, Mary wanted to stand in line next to her best friend, and Anna said she’s supposed to go to the back of the line, not cut to the front. She called Mary a “liar,” and Mary called her “bossy” back.
I asked Anna what a liar is, and she told me, “a liar is like somebody who tries to get what they want, no matter what.” Apparently, she had been watching a tv show with her mom where the antagonist lies and manipulates to get what she wants. After clarifying, Anna agreed that maybe “rule-breaker” is a better term for what happened with Mary.
But, you know, Mary wasn’t cutting in front of Anna. Mary wasn’t anywhere near Anna in line. The students that Mary was cutting seemed perfectly fine with letting Mary stand by her friend. So why did Anna have to get involved to begin with?
What’s Really Going on?
Some kids want the world to be fair. They want control over their classroom, they want to know what to expect and how things are going to work. Although they might not admit it, they like routines, and dislike exceptions to rules. So they butt into situations that have nothing to do with them and tattle about who’s doing what to whom. I don’t use the word bossy in my class, but I do tell students to mind their own business.
There’s a scene in this show, Peacemaker, where other characters call the protagonist a bully. But, he protests, he was bullied too – kids always called him a bully and that hurt his feelings. This is what I think of when one student is upset that another student called them a jerk for hogging a toy that belonged to the class. Yeah, “jerk” is a mean word. But you were kind of being a jerk.
“Antagonist”: The Ultimate Bad Word
You may notice that I use the words “protagonist” and “antagonist” a lot. In second grade, students are learning about characterization, and how deep characters can be. The antagonist in our novel about animals that break free from a circus is a guy who hits the baby elephant with a claw-stick for not performing tricks, and curses at the gorilla for breaking things. The language he uses, combined with his stereotypical bad-guy behavior, sends a message that strong language is reserved for serious situations.
However, the antagonist isn’t all bad. Sometimes he shows genuine care and affection for the circus animals. Sometimes, he neglects them because the circus is low on cash, and he can’t afford the things they need. Saying bad words doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Nobody is all good or bad.
But just try telling that to Jacob next time he’s pissed at Eli for calling him a “poopy-head.” Them’s fightin’ words!