Monday, April 11, 2011
Last weekend in their 4-2 victory over West Ham, Manchester United's striker Wayne Rooney scored a hat trick. Following his third goal, Rooney shouted out to the crowd, then turned directly to the sideline camera and repeated his expletive filled celebration for the world to hear. He was immediately censured by the English Football Association and given a two game suspension, the standard punishment for public profanity. Rooney doesn't contest that he swore, after all even my husband heard live what he said, but he feels the punishment is excessive, so he fought that. The risk was that if the board ruled against him, they would actually mete out a greater penalty. On Thursday he found out he would have to sit out the EP game against Fulham and the FA semifinal game against crosstown rivals Manchester City. But he'll be available for the rematch with Chelsea. So overall the punishment really gives him a much needed two week rest in the middle of a tough season.
In a world where kids have learned that English seems to depend on one adjective and one verb, and they both begin with "f", what Rooney did doesn't surprise them. While Sir Clive Woodward of the British Olympic Committee argues "Children will see it and say 'if he can do it I can do it too' and behave like that towards parents and teachers," his words come too little too late. I hate to shake up a Knight of the Realm, but kids already think it's cool to swear. All Rooney did was reinforce that coolness with his behavior. Kids hear it coming from their film heroes, their favorite comedians, their sports icons, their friends, their parents, and even their coaches. I sat at a table in a pizza restaurant with my grandkids and had to finally ask a table of high school students next to us to tone it down. They were actually contrite, not even realizing how often they were throwing around offensive language. It all trips so easily off the tongue.
Even now swearing has become a regular event on network television, with the appropriate bleep barely disguising what was said. Kids aren't stupid. Sir Woodward was right that kids will mimic what they hear, but Rooney didn't set that ship in motion. It left dock a long time ago. If I use my own grandsons as an example, it shows how pervasive and persuasive bad language can be. My daughter and son-in-law don't use any swear words, even the more "acceptable" ones. The boys' media viewing is tightly regulated. They can only play video games rated "E" and they can't go on any of the social media websites. Yet, after playing a Disney game on my cell phone, they impishly agreed to put the "F" word as their name on the winner's list. I had to play close to one hundred sessions of that game to finally push the name off the list! They were five and nine at the time. Where did they learn that word? From their friends for sure, but unfortunately they probably also learned it from their sports teams.
Which brings us full circle back to Rooney. The inherent approval of the use of such language comes when kids hear it over and over from people they trust and respect. That means parents on the sidelines, coaches, fellow players, and other fans. Language flies from the mouths of people who should know better into the ears of kids who desperately want to emulate grown-ups. Parents may argue that there isn't much they can do about it, but I disagree. Every time we ignore abusive language, we are passively approving it. Before the season even begins, parents can make a pact to "keep it clean" on the sidelines and to enforce that by reminding parents, even parents of the opposing team, that bad language won't be tolerated. Kids should know that using swear words doesn't make them cool. We wouldn't tolerate a kid lighting up a cigarette, so we shouldn't stand passively by and let the word bombs fly. Kids learn quickly that profanity is used like punctuation to indicate extreme anger, excitement or pleasure. We need to provide other language which can accomplish the same powerful emphasis. As an English teacher I can assure the parents of America that their children have far too limited a vocabulary to express themselves. I once followed a pack of my students across the campus quad listening to them complain about an assignment I had given. In the course of 400 feet from the classroom to the library these scholars described their distaste for the assignment and me with only one adjective, and that adjective was used dozens of times. When we reached the library and they realized who was behind them, they burned with embarrassment. I simply suggested that they get a thesaurus.
We can't cloister our children. In a world with increasing outside and immediate influences our ability as parents to monitor every experience diminishes rapidly. Even an innocent keystroke error when doing an internet search can end up with some skimpily clad young woman popping up on the screen. When Bryce was ten he went to a friend's eleventh sleepover birthday party where the parents popped in R-rated "Matrix" for the kids to enjoy. When I found out and confronted the mom her response saddened me – she figured all the kids had already seen the movie in the theatres. Bryce said he thought the movie was really cool, and spent the next two months battling nightmares of men in sunglasses attacking him.
So we have to accept that kids will see and hear things we would rather they don't. But we also don't need to condone any bad behavior that arises from those experiences. Constant and unnecessary uses of profanity steal away from the civility that helps us all work, play and live together. We want our children to recognize that going to an extreme expression actually diminishes our credibility as reasonable and intelligent people. English is a rich language that offers some powerful ways to more thoughtfully express ourselves. Wayne Rooney comes from the land of Shakespeare who expressed himself with grace and beauty and might have said of Rooney's rant: Mind your speech a little lest you should mar your fortunes. (King Lear)