Our children hear words and terminology that we wish didn't exist. They hear it in the shopping malls. They see it written on the sides of bridges we pass, and they see some of it in print in the newspaper. They need to know what these words mean and why it is wrong for us to use them in any context because God has told us to not use His name in vain and to avoid filthy language and even foolish jest that can be misunderstood and hurtful. Frankly, the use of any expletives and profanity indicate that the speaker has a poor grasp of language.

Unfortunately, our children need to know how these words are spelled. At the age of six our son innocently spelled out a four-letter word in a composition, but we had to point that out to him. He was talking about his summer wardrobe of shorts and a T-shirt; however, he left out the r in "shirt." The episode has since become a family joke, with gentle humor taking the sting out of it.

Blondes and Bombers
That same year, Dan took Andrew to Dayton, Ohio, to visit the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Museum - one of the country's best collections of historic military aircraft. They were strolling down the World War II aisle when they came to the B-24 bomber. Andrew looked up at the scantily clad redhead painted on the side of the nose, spelled out the name for himself, and then turned and asked in a clear, puzzled voice, "What's a `Strawberry Bitch'?"

None of the other people in the exhibit area actually turned to look, but Dan could see them pausing and straining their ears to see how old Dad was going to handle this one.

"Well," he said, "you see the painting of the woman on the nose? When the men went off to war, they left all their women behind, and often they painted pictures on the airplanes of their wives or girlfriends or movie stars or women they wished they could meet. See this one's red hair? That's called `strawberry blonde'. Bitch is slang for a woman who won't behave and causes a lot of trouble - a lot like the airplanes did sometimes. It's not a nice name, and it's an insult to call a woman that."

Andrew nodded and wandered on to the next airplane. Dan had somehow found the right - and appropriate - answer. In a low-key and straightforward fashion Andrew had acquired a new vocabulary word and its main meaning (though he will be aware of more nuances later), and he also learned it's not a word he's supposed to use again. (He was later taught the less common use of the word as it applies to breeding dogs.) He also realized that Dad won't go through the roof if he accidentally asks about a bad word. ...

After seeing Jurassic Park: The Lost World Jennifer expressed interest in reading the book. Dan dug a copy out of his bottomless pile of books and handed it to Jennifer, having forgotten by that time the text was sprinkled with the F-word.

He discovered his mistake a few weeks later when he picked it up and started rereading it himself.

"Jennifer," he asked her in her room that night, "do you know what this word means?"

She looked at the word he was pointing at and said, "No. I couldn't figure it out."

"Well, it's a very ugly word, and I apologize because I forgot it was in there." He pronounced it for her. "You may have heard it elsewhere and not recognized it. It has a couple of different meanings. It can be a nasty way to refer to the act of sex, or it can be a term of abuse, insult, disgust and hatred. I hear people use it a lot at work - maybe so much that I didn't even notice it when I read the book the first time. I guess I wasn't paying very close attention, was I?"

They discussed it a bit more, and Jennifer seemed relieved rather than upset by the explanation. "I know what it means now, and I won't say it. I promise." ...

Other people carry bad language into our house with them.

A young neighborhood friend of Jennifer's used to abuse God's name frequently. Elizabeth heard this from the other room, sighed and prayed for wisdom how to deal with this. She didn't want to criticize the child, because she had never been taught otherwise. She learned it from her parents! But we did not want this in our home, nor did we want our daughter getting used to hearing it.

So Elizabeth gently explained to the child that when she used God's name like this (when she wasn't addressing Him, or talking about Him to someone else), it bothered us because God is someone we know and love. So she asked her to try not to say that when she was at our house or playing with Jennifer. She very nicely complied and has continued to try to avoid this when around us.

Our children are going to hear bad language. We cannot stop up their ears every time profanity or filth pours out of someone's mouth. We don't intentionally expose them to it, but the profitable side is that we can equip them to react to it and then deal with it. We love their sensitivity. They wince and turn to look at us when they hear rough words in public or in a video, and we share a look of understanding.

We have pointed out to the children that it's interesting that it is only God's name and the name of Jesus Christ that are used in vain. Funny thing - it's not the name of Muhammad or Buddha. That goes to show that the name that we love, even when used lightly, carries a weight, a significance even to those who seem not to care. The children smile at this. They understand, and that comforts us as we see them walk about in this world.

Unfortunately, troubles of the tongue aren't limited to "plumbing words," sexual references and profanity. There are also problems such as insults, lies, babbling and inappropriate silliness to deal with.

We usually interfere when we overhear conversations between them that sounds harsh and unloving. Clarifications are requested, misunderstandings are straightened out, apologies are traded, softer words are substituted, and the incident is dropped. ...

What we model will show up at our dinner table. Jennifer likes to repeat what she hears her friends say. Sometimes she might be testing the validity of the information, to see what Mom and Dad have to say on the subject. As long as it's not gossip or silly chattering, we acknowledge her contributions to our conversation and place our stamp of approval on her willingness to include us in her life. But we don't need - or want - to hear everything. Generally, they may tell us what they have seen or heard themselves, but we discourage them from repeating stories told by a third party.

We try to help them define what is and is not our business. The family dinner table is a place for candid discussion, but it is hard to encourage openness and equip our children to be involved in society without getting into discussions of other people's doings or weaknesses. Such talk could be destructive gossip if it went beyond our inner circle of four. At these times we have explicitly defined the limits of the conversation, pointing out that some things we discuss among ourselves would be hurtful if repeated to anyone else. The children have respected this confidence, and within this sphere of privacy we have helped them to respond properly to such pressing problems as having a friend who habitually lies to them or relatives who don't keep their well-intentioned promises.

What's true for them as children is true for us as adults: when our tongues are under control, communication is a mutual pleasure.

Excerpted by permission from Look Both Ways: Helping Your Children Stay Innocent and Grow Wise, copyright 1999 by Dan and Elizabeth Hamilton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill., www.ivpress.com, 1-800-843-4587. All rights reserved.

Dan and Elizabeth Hamilton are the authors of Should I Homeschool? They live in Indianapolis, In., with their two children, Jennifer and Andrew.

Have your children experimented with bad language? How have you tried to encourage them to use language that pleases God? Why is it important to you to help them avoid the profanity that's so prevalent in our society and pay attention to the words they use? Visit Crosswalk's forums to discuss this topic. Just click on the link below.