Many (I’m guessing most) of the children with whom we work use profanity in their daily language. When they become angry, it can get pretty intense.
For many years, I used point systems that included mild fines for cursing. When the kids cursed, they lost a few points. Not a big deal if they didn’t have any other problems that day. Cursing alone didn’t cost them any privileges. There was no noticeable change in their language. They continued to curse; we continued to take points.
Occasionally, to show that I could “communicate” on their level, I would let some of those words creep into my speech. I thought it contributed to developing a relationship with them.
Then I accepted a position as the program director of a group home for twelve boys. There was no cursing. The program manager, James, who managed the staff and the milieu, simply didn’t allow it. He didn’t even allow slang. How did he do it? What consequences did he impose? None. There were no consequences. James just didn’t allow it.
James didn’t feel the need to show the children that he could get down with them on their level. Rather, he saw it as his responsibility to challenge them to come to his level. Consequently, he never, ever used profanity, slang, or street handshakes. And he simply would not accept them from the children.
When a bad word would slip out from one of the children unconsciously from force of habit, James would simply correct the child, who would then apologize contritely, saying something like, “Sorry, James,” and correct his speech.
When one of the children used profanity more deliberately, in a provocative way, James would stop everything and go into his teaching mode, sometimes with the individual, other times with the whole group. His opening line would be something like, “We don’t use that kind of language in this group home.” Then he would explain why, sometimes asking some of the other children to help. He never said it was wrong, never condemned the language or those who used it. His message was very simple and straight forward, “We don’t use that kind of language here. We have a different way of communicating. It’s my job to teach it to you, and your job to learn it.” It was all about respect: respect for self and respect for others. He taught a lot about a lot of things.
I should point out that most of these children were tough, oppositional adolescents placed in the home by the courts, a few approaching their eighteenth birthday. But there were only two roles in the group home–children and adults. It wasn’t demeaning to be a child. Rather, it was the only other thing you could be if you weren’t an adult. As James would occasionally remind all of us, the responsibility of adults is to teach; the responsibility of children is to learn. James had a lot of respect for the children. They knew it because it showed in everything he did. In fact, he would sometimes tell them, “I have too much respect for you to let you behave like that.”
Needless to say, his staff followed his example. He hired them and trained them to do so.
Consequently, cursing became extremely rare. Once, when girls from a sister program were waiting in the office, having accompanied their staff on an errand, I heard one of the boys tell one of them in a matter-of-fact way, “We don’t use that kind of language here.” And the boys would do the same with new residents. That was perhaps the most powerful thing.
I don’t want to imply that there was never any cursing. Occasionally, one of the children would really lose control, becoming verbally aggressive, throwing around all the words he knew. Sometimes, one even became physically aggressive. In such circumstances, James or his staff would not correct or teach. Those interventions would have provoked escalation. Rather, James and his staff would work to help the child to de-escalate. On occasion, they would use physical restraint (we were trained in Therapeutic Crisis Intervention). They saved any teaching for the debriefing after the crisis was over and the child had recovered.
In effect, James created an environment in which appropriate, respectful language was the norm. And he did it without consequences. He did not attempt to discipline or control the children. Rather, he succeeded in teaching them self-discipline, to control themselves as it were.
The power to influence is more important than the power to control.
“The only discipline that lasts is self-discipline.”
— O. A. “Bum” Phillips
American football Coach