A big topic of conversation in our house is how much stricter English schools are than their American equivalents. What if, one of my children will say as we leave the house in the morning, I wore what I’m wearing to school in England? (You’d be sent home.) What if I wore my beanie in class? (You’d be told to take if off.) What if – the big one – I went to school in makeup and false nails, as some nine-year-olds in their school do? (I would probably get a call from the office and quite right, too.) “What about self-expression?” they complain, like diligent Americans, and I explain that this is not a priority in the English school system, besides which, wearing Air Jordans because “Ava does” isn’t what self-expression means.

These differences are, obviously, all uniform-based and elsewhere the two systems are clearly more aligned. In Mississippi this week, a news story to warm the heart as a seven-year-old was admonished by the teacher for “unacceptable language”, when, to quote the letter from the school his mother uploaded to Facebook, “he said Jesus Christ when he dropped the Legos he was clearing up”. The document the boy was sent home with fell under the rubric of “parent notice of disciplinary incident”, an over-reaction his family are objecting to in a post that has promptly gone viral.

This incident is only funny, I would suggest, because of the very particular role played by the words “Jesus Christ” in the swearing lexicon as it applies to minors. It is one of those litmus tests that show up early on when you meet other parents – how they respond to bad language and where the line falls – and it often comes as a surprise. On a playdate the other day with a mum I consider vaguely permissive, the speed with which she corrected her daughter’s use of the word “ass” to “behind” forced me to reassess. Although, like politicians who police everyone else’s moral standards to distract from their own, I sometimes think fussiness around language accompanies weird dynamics elsewhere.

Then again, I would say that; I’m very bad about swearing. (In my defence, New York apartments are small and I can’t swear in private with another adult unless I put my people in headphones). As a result, my children are exceedingly prim on the matter of language, which is both pleasing and incredibly tedious. I can get away with “shite” because it’s English and they don’t understand how it lands, but they are on me for everything else. Gratifyingly, when asked to delineate the hierarchy of bad words, their generation appears to skew somewhat political: “the N-word, the B-word, the Sh-word,” they tell me. They don’t like the “A-word” either, although we have had a long discussion this week about why, exactly, the word “bad-ass” is common usage while just “ass” on its own is quite rude.

Meanwhile, the F-word, which you would think might place high on the list, is simultaneously so pervasive, and so beyond the pale, that they don’t even rank it – although they cannot recognise that, in the right circumstance, it can be very funny. Last year, when one of their third-grade teachers tripped on the corner of the rug and mouthed the word “fuck”, my daughter clocked and brought it home for us, in a story we will enjoy revisiting for the rest of our lives.

Which brings us to Jesus Christ, sort of. Even my puritanical children can understand that, in the case of this particular vulgarity, it is age-inappropriate not because it’s obscene, but because, like a baby wearing a flat cap, it has an aesthetic that belongs to old people. A small child swearing with the jaded frustration of a grizzled executive or a salty old diva can’t reasonably be considered anything but funny – except, it turns out, in Mississippi.

Approached for comment by a local Fox TV station, the DeSoto county school district remarked on the matter of the seven-year-old’s outburst at having to clear up the Lego: “DeSoto County students would not be reprimanded for simply saying Jesus Christ.” However, the spokesperson added: “It is possible that a student could be corrected for a disrespectful use of Jesus Christ’s name.” Well, quite. Context is all. In which case, I would draw your attention to the recent viral video of an Australian two-year-old looking out her window and saying, guilelessly, “there’s a fucking goat outside!”, which – I’m not proud of this, but what can I do? – strikes me as one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist

QOSHE - Of course we should let the children play, but should we let them swear as well? - Emma Brockes
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Of course we should let the children play, but should we let them swear as well?

7 1
25.01.2024

A big topic of conversation in our house is how much stricter English schools are than their American equivalents. What if, one of my children will say as we leave the house in the morning, I wore what I’m wearing to school in England? (You’d be sent home.) What if I wore my beanie in class? (You’d be told to take if off.) What if – the big one – I went to school in makeup and false nails, as some nine-year-olds in their school do? (I would probably get a call from the office and quite right, too.) “What about self-expression?” they complain, like diligent Americans, and I explain that this is not a priority in the English school system, besides which, wearing Air Jordans because “Ava does” isn’t what self-expression means.

These differences are, obviously, all uniform-based and elsewhere the two systems are clearly more aligned. In Mississippi this week, a news story to warm the heart as a seven-year-old was admonished by the teacher for “unacceptable language”, when, to quote the letter from the school his mother uploaded to Facebook, “he said Jesus Christ when he dropped the Legos he was clearing up”.........

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