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That’s those unchurched kids for you.

Not so fast.

When we asked a couple of Christian student leaders to keep a journal of what they saw, heard, and experienced during a 10-day youth group trip, they painted a picture of spiritually hungry, morally determined kids whose one compulsive vice was cursing. For example, one wrote: “Aside from everyone’s (self included) fondness for four-letter words, it was a nearly spiritually flawless day.”

An isolated observation? Hardly. A Chicago Sun-Times poll of 10,000 kids found that “more and more kids are being exposed to curse words at an early age, and ‘traditional’ curse words such as ‘hell’ and ‘damn’ have been replaced by words once considered too vulgar for adults.”

Youth leaders everywhere tell me they’ve heard an alarming increase in cursing over the last few years. Infractions range from the ubiquitous and casual use of the f-word to rude, suggestive, and sometimes vicious references about other people. One youth minister told me a teenage guy in his group e-mailed a female adult leader to ask what she does when she “gets horny.”

What’s going on here? Why do kids — even Christian kids — feel so comfortable with foul language? And how does it impact their spiritual growth?

Why Kids Use Profanity

Kids swear because profanity conveys strong emotions. And strong emotions are the norm when you’re a teenager. According to Timothy Jay, author of Cursing In America, teenagers also use curse words as a tool to separate themselves from adults. But why such a sharp upswing in foul language? Libby Barron, a senior at Jordan High School in Durham, North Carolina, explains, “We’re desensitized to the profanity displayed in the media. We don’t even notice it anymore.”

When researchers tracked kids living in a remote Canadian town that did not have television until 1973, they observed a 161% increase in “biting, shoving, and name-calling among first- and second-graders two years after the introduction of television.”

What We Can Do

We know profanity isn’t nice, but is it a sin? When Jesus called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers,” was he cursing them? It’s important we answer these questions because kids who hear “it’s bad because it’s bad” are more — not less — likely to swear. They need to know why it’s bad so they can stand against it. So help them forswear swearing by teaching them…

• Words have power. We either build up or tear down with them. And profanity almost always tears down. That’s why Scripture is full of warnings against cursing, including Proverbs 13:3; Matthew 12:34-37; Romans 12:14; Ephesians 4:29 and 5:4; Colossians 3:8 and 4:6; Titus 2:7-8; and James 3:8-10. “Profane” means “to treat something sacred with abuse, irreverence, or contempt…” So when kids use the f-word, they treat something sacred (the act of intercourse) with contempt. Ask kids to keep a running tally of the number of profanities they hear during one day at school or one night of TV-watching. Have them report back, then ask: Were you surprised at what you learned? Why or why not? What makes profanity bad? How does swearing impact your relationship with Jesus? Why does God tell us not to use profanity?

• Cursing makes others stumble. We’re warned by God that if our actions cause others to stumble, we’re violating our calling to love our neighbors as ourselves. Tell kids the truth — according to researchers, people who curse are respected less in our society and have fewer deep relationships. Challenge kids to use only “prayer” words — if they wouldn’t use the word in conversation with God, then it’s not appropriate in any other context. Give kids alternative — and attention — grabbing-words that can substitute for profanity. Shakespearean words are a good-n-goofy choice (a pox upon you!) or try words such as drivel, hogwash, or balderdash.

Kids won’t change their habits if we tell them swearing is merely an issue of niceness. But those who love God will change if it’s a gospel issue. It’s up to us to help them see why it is.


Rick Lawrence has been editor of GROUP Magazine. He recently authored JC Q’s: 150 Jesus-Centered Discussion Questions (Group).

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