The Mouths of Babes

IT has always been true that children learn more at school than the approved curriculum. But there's some evidence that one part of that extracurricular learning is today getting a little out of hand: foul language.

It's increasingly showing up not just during recess shouting matches or on washroom walls, but in the classroom. Four-letter words are frequently the norm between students, and all too often they're invading the communication between students and teachers. A recent article on the subject in the Wall Street Journal noted that one principal in Tampa, Fla., felt he was spending the bulk of his time handling teachers' complaints about profanity.

And the problem isn't just the macho, peer-driven dirty talk of teens and preteens. It reaches all the way down to kindergarten and preschool.

The Florida principal has responded by contacting all the parents of children in his school and asking if he could talk to them. That kind of activism may begin to get to the root of the language problem. Whenever younger kids pick up the four-letter habit, parental influence doubtless has a role. But the habit is easily passed along to children whose parents may abhor the words. Countless mothers and fathers have stories about what their youngsters, naturally fascinated by the new words coming their way , picked up at day care.

The broader phenomenon is a society that has pretty much decided that all constraints are off when it comes to the language permissible in movies, in song lyrics, or on television. Today's most popular films typically mix action, adventure, and a good story line with linguistic filth. The explosion of TV options through cable has brought into the livingroom words that old-time network television automatically censored.

Censorship is out, commercially and constitutionally. But responsibility is in. When language that - for all its comic, trendy setting in the popular culture - denotes anger, hatred, and vulgarity starts to become the lingua franca of youth, it's time for parents, teachers, and young people themselves to turn things around. And talking about the problem, like that Florida principal, instead of grimly tolerating it, is the place to begin.

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