Chart Number 215

April 22, 2016

By Ekta R. Garg

We’ve all heard it before: the tone and cadence of a parent berating a child. If we’re really honest, we’ve all done it ourselves. In public, at home, in the car. Everywhere.

It didn’t surprise me, then, as I sat outside of Nine’s school on Tuesday, to hear the tone of voice through the window. I had about 20 minutes before Nine would be dismissed. We had a dance rehearsal that afternoon for the recital this weekend, so I got there early to get a place close to the front of the line. Because of the lovely spring temperatures we’ve had recently, I turned off the ignition and opened the window. I’d brought a book to read and had just opened it to my bookmark when I heard the man’s voice.

I looked up and saw him carrying a baby seat as a young boy walked alongside him. I didn’t know the boy; he looked like he must have been a first grader. Maybe second grade, at the most. I didn’t know his father either, but I certainly recognized the modulations in his voice that said he was seriously annoyed about something.

I wouldn’t have paid any attention to either of them except for the words that accompanied that tone of voice. The father inserted so much profanity into his sentences that I looked up, and, I have to admit, started staring a little bit. The F-word came out of his mouth repeatedly, but it certainly wasn’t the only one.

The boy looked embarrassed, as kids do when they’ve been caught doing something wrong, and I’m not doubting that the father had a legitimate reason to scold his child. But in this particular case, the father was the one at fault. His son probably committed some inconsequential infraction. The father was committing one that would set his son on a lifelong course of clumsy language.

Most people may find it hard to believe, but I don’t use profanity in my daily life. At all. The worst thing you’ll hear out of my mouth is the word “crap.” A couple of people have asked me how this could be. If I stub my toe, they asked, didn’t I feel like letting loose a string of bad words? What did I say?

“I say ‘Ow’,” I responded, mystified by the question.

I’ve also taught my girls that profanity is a bad choice. I’m not here to argue the morality of such a decision, but I would like to put forth an argument that goes to the heart of what I do here on Growth Chart and in my life as an author. I deal with words—with language—every single day. Why do we teach our kids that it’s okay to be lazy with the way they speak?

Because in the end, I’ve told the kids, profanity is about laziness. When I stub my toe, I could let loose a whole string of words that are essentially empty sounds. They don’t really accomplish anything, and they don’t express anything.

I actually did this yesterday morning, by the way. Hit the three middle toes of my left foot on the very solid hardwood footboard of my bed. I said “ow.” I pressed my toes into the floor in a reflex action to try to disperse the pain. I looked back at the bed and cried.

I let myself feel angry. How could I be so careless? Hadn’t I hit my foot on that same spot so many times before? Hadn’t I learned to be careful when skirting around that part of the bed? When I was in a rush, why couldn’t I remember?

And there. Right there was the heart of the matter. I was angry at the bed—kind of stupid, really, because the bed doesn’t care how I feel—but I was angry at myself. I’d wasted a precious half-hour in the morning with a poor choice on how to use my time, goofing off a little when I could have done something more constructive.

Instead of saying a bunch of words that mean nothing, I forced myself to confront what was really wrong. My toes hurt for a good part of the afternoon. And I vowed to make better choices.

It may seem like such a small thing to many of you reading today’s Chart. Profanity. Empty sounds. But we’re in a world that is becoming more and more crowded by sounds, particularly empty ones. I’d like to think that by teaching my girls to be more deliberate with their word choices, it’ll help them become more deliberate about other choices they make too.

I must have stared at the father and son for more than 30 seconds, because his eye caught mine and he stared back. For a moment I worried that he’d come to my car, directly in front of mine, I realized as he put the baby seat in it, and get upset at me too. I averted my gaze, but my ears couldn’t stop taking in the sounds. The profanity.

He probably didn’t think about the words he was using. His speech patterns suggested that he’s comfortable with those words, that they form an integral fabric of how he communicates. He probably also hasn’t given any thought to the fact that his son is listening, taking in those words, and will almost definitely start using the same empty sounds to communicate within the next few years.

But do those sounds really convey anything? Was the father upset with his son? Or the teacher? The school? Maybe the boy’s mother? Had the father had a bad day at his job? Did he feel beaten down by a system? Was he annoyed that he was the one who had to come to school to pick up the boy? Had he wanted to be somewhere else at that time?

I’ll never know, of course, and most likely that boy will never know either. But would it be so bad for a person to ask himself or herself these questions, and then answer them, and then actually share that information? In a day and age when technology allows us to share our thoughts with the entire world, are we really still so hard-pressed to convey what we’re really thinking?

Technology makes the conveyance easier. That still leaves us to make the choice on what we will convey. I can teach and encourage my children all their lives, but ultimately the choice on how they communicate will be theirs.

I hope they make the choice with the most productive results.