LAKE FOREST, ILL. — Swearing isn't what it used to be. Even refined ladies don't flinch when coarse words come from the next table, and it's no surprise if they utter a few of their own.
Still, even chronic cursers are a bit bothered when they hear children using what is sometimes called adult language - as if profanity were restricted to people age 21 or over. Oh, well, they say. Cursing is just part of our modern vernacular.
Kids might be punished when they swear in front of their parents, but the penalty is usually milder than liquid soap, especially if the children have heard the same words from Mom or Dad.
I have spoken about swearing to entire student bodies at high schools and middle schools. When I ask the students how many of them swear, more than 90 percent of the boys and girls shamelessly raise their hands. I ask them if their parents swear. More than 70 percent of hands shoot up.
My survey is not scientific, but since I speak primarily at suburban schools, it's obvious that the open use of bad language is not a sign of a substandard education. Teachers who attempt to control it often hear from parents, who tell them their job is to teach math, not subjective morality.
Does it matter? Our language evolves along with our culture. The rigid and repressive mores of the 1950s have been replaced with informality. Some say our relaxed culture - from casual dress to casual sex - has gone too far. Others are content with the freedom to do as they please, say what they want to say, use whatever words they want to use, and give their individual rights precedence over the rights of others.
What about the parents who prefer not to have their children swear? What can they tell their kids? How can certain words be bad if they are said on TV, in movies, at ball games, and at their friend's house? Are they just harmless words, forbidden by outdated social conventions?
Telling children that certain words are bad or dirty worked a few decades ago. Now, even toddlers seem to demand a convincing rationale.
With the exception of blasphemy, most of the common cuss words refer to our private body parts and how we use them. By age 4 or 5, kids usually understand privacy is one reason they wear pants, and why bathrooms and bedrooms have doors. If a youngster fails to see the connection now, he or she will understand soon.
Profane language is also used to complain, criticize, and express negative emotions such as anger or frustration. We tell children not to have a temper tantrum. Don't cry over spilled milk. Don't scream. When they do, and intensify their emotion with profanity, the issue that prompted the swearing needs to be dealt with first. Teaching children to control their emotions and deal with their problems is not easy, but every success is a step toward molding the child into a better person, a happier person, and one with fewer reasons to swear.
The same words are often used to insult someone. Parents train children to become social beings, to get along with their siblings and the neighbor kids. And while more harm can be done calling someone stupid, fat, or ugly, crude names are not acceptable alternatives. It's a matter of civility.
I was speaking to a group of students when one asked what I meant by civility. The boy behind him kicked his chair and said, "It's like manners and being polite, you dumb---." He understood the meaning, but not its application.
Sometimes swearing isn't malicious. It's simply lazy language. It gets an idea across, but other words can communicate more clearly and effectively. "Colorful language" is a misnomer for overused words that have become boring, trite, tedious, lackluster, stale, wearisome, and monotonous. Ironically, in this era of cellphones and e-mail and other technological advances in communications, our vocabulary has diminished.
Maybe curse words are now widely accepted - or tolerated - but they are still unpleasant. They have lost some of the harshness, but still convey a tone and attitude that adds to our stress and weariness by the end of a long day of hearing them.
Whenever we or our children curse, we should think of a better word to use next time. Swearing has its time and place, but it's a habit that too few people bother to control or hide.
• James V. O'Connor is director of the Cuss Control Academy and author of 'Cuss Control, the Complete Book on How to Curb Your Cursing.'