I love language. The beauty of a poem, the lyricism of a novel, the passion of a political speech, the sentiment of a heartfelt toast, the humor of standup comedy, and the simplicity of a handwritten letter are testaments to the expressive power of words. And although language is not uniquely human, the capacity to create an infinite number of utterances that follow a finite set of rules probably is. Every human language on the planet has a grammar that allows us to combine words in unique ways. Your responsibilities as a youth development professional include coaching campers to curtail crassness and use their creative verbal skills in ways that nurture a healthy culture.

Word Power

Most of what we say and write is benign, if not beautiful. Some of what we say, however, can be hurtful, even devastating. Consider the pain potential in the expressions “I don’t care,” “You are worthless,” and “Never again.” Depending on the question, even the one-syllable words “Yes” (Was she killed?) and “No” (Do you love me?) could be crushing.

Given the potency of words, it makes sense that all cultures have adopted conventions around which words and expressions are socially acceptable and which are not. Even the most literary and liberal among us — those who routinely eschew publishing censorship — must also assent to common sense and good manners when it comes to foul language. Some nastiness — such as the F bomb — is obvious. Other times, the distinction between rude and refined is as subtle as capitalization (e.g., dick v. Dick) or word order (e.g., pussy cat v. cat pussy) or spelling (e.g., damn v. dam). Sometimes, only context clarifi es meaning, as with the words ass, bitch, and cracker, which have common zoological, veterinary, and culinary usages in addition to their vulgar, sexist, and racist meanings.

(By the way, if you are offended, intrigued, or tickled at this point in the article, that’s solid evidence that word choice does matter. Indeed, in 1602, William Shakespeare gave Rosencrantz the line in Hamlet, “. . . many wearing rapiers [blades] are afraid of goose-quills [feather pens] and dare scarce come thither.” Some 237 years later, another English playwright, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton famously wrote the same basic line for his play Richelieu: Or the Conspiracy — “The pen is mightier article so far, I urge you to focus on the following concepts and recommendations. Each can guide your work with youth in important ways.)

Mailman, Postal Worker, or Letter Distribution Engineer?

As a youth leader, your job is not to be the language police, obsessed with political correctness. You can leave that to ultraradical feminists who insist on calling manhole covers personhole covers or to satirists who re-label old people chronologically gifted or to politians themselves who coin euphemisms like quantitative easing to describe the practice of creating electronic money from thin air.

Instead, you can help promote young people’s development and create a healthy culture at camp by carefully listening and responding to the offensive words and phrases your campers use. Your attentive presence, combined with a calm explanation of why some might find certain verbal expressions offensive and a thoughtful discussion of alternative word choices, is leadership gold. Boosting campers’ expressive language skills will improve their behavior at camp as well as at home and at school. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if parents, teachers, and coaches praised what young people learned to say at camp, rather than cringing in response to the query, Wanna hear what I learned to say at camp?

Or So It’s Been Said

Almost all of the profanity and offensive phrases that children share at camp were originally spoken or written by an adult. Therefore, a reasonable first step in keeping talk clean at camp is to set a good example yourself. If you must swear or use other vulgar language, do it only on your time off, away from camp. You might even consider taking the bold and refreshing step of keeping your language clean all summer, regardless of where you are or whom you are with.

After setting a sterling example, the next steps in promoting safe talk at camp are:

  1. Be present
  2. Provide a calm explanation
  3. Suggest alternative word choices

The overarching principle here is to respond to offensive verbalizations without overreacting. The importance of this balance becomes clear when you consider the extremes. If, as a youth leader, you stand to the side, willfully ignoring the way your campers express themselves and talk with one another, you may be quietly condoning rude, sexist, or racist speech. You will be teaching these boys and girls that camp is a permissive, boorish place. On the other extreme, if you blow a gasket and mete out harsh punishment each time your campers cross the line, you’ll be teaching them how easy it is to push your buttons and how attractively potent certain words are.

It is patently impossible to be present during your campers’ every waking moment. However, you can and should have an attentive presence during activities, transition times, meal times, showering and changing times (with appropriate double coverage), and unstructured free time. It is completely normal for campers to test limits — to try to get a rise out of one another and out of you. So, expect some edgy language this summer and listen carefully during the times when you expect foul language to emerge, including sports competitions (when tempers are running hot), bedtime (or other times when fatigue is high), and cultural blending (when social misunderstandings are common).

When you set a good linguistic example and coach your campers to speak kindly and politely, you are promoting positive youth development in an enduring and influential way. Indeed, young people may arrive at your summer program with unrefined expressive language skills caused by years of texting. Your leadership will refine their language, their thinking, and, ultimately, their sensitivity toward others. That’s success, by any description.

Notes from the Field

How to Explain and Suggest

I’m sure I haven’t heard it all during my nearly four decades in camping. But I have certainly spoken and witnessed my fair share of sketchy sayings. You’ll probably even discover a few new ones this summer. Human language is, as I noted previously, infinitely generative. Nevertheless, taking a few different examples and showing how you might provide a calm explanation and suggest alternative word choices is genuinely instructive. Never mind if you haven’t heard some of these examples. Each represents a class of wanton words that you should be ready to respond to in a similar way.

Suck. [Sexual Innuendo] Perhaps no foul word is more common among English-speaking youngsters than suck. It would be hard to spend a few hours at a day or overnight camp and not hear, “That sucks,” “This sucks,” “You suck,” and even “I suck.” Forget the debate about whether suck counts as an official swear word or whether it has a sexual connotation. Like its cuss cousin blow, the word suck is at the very least ambiguously crude. So, when you hear, “This sucks” or “That blows” or other common bad language, an effective response is something like, “Yeah, I know you don’t like it, but how about saying, ‘This stinks,’ or ‘That’s terrible’? It’s not a huge deal, but it sounds a little less crude.”

Ghetto. [Classist] Popularized by rappers in the early 2000s, the expression “That’s so ghetto” is synonymous with “That’s so trashy.” Ironically, it can be used as praise or criticism, depending on whether one is glamorizing low-income, high-crime neighborhoods (which many rap stars do) or whether one is deriding the poor quality of an item of clothing, electronics, or sports equipment (as many young people do). Most likely, campers who say, “That’s so ghetto” do not fully understand what they are saying, nor are they familiar with the origin of the term: the neighborhoods in Venice where Jews were forced to live. So, when you hear, “That’s so ghetto,” an effective response is something like, “You might not know this, but a ghetto is a neighborhood where people are forced to live because of their ethnicity, religion, or income level. For that reason, the expression could be offensive to some people. Try saying, ‘That’s so trashy’ if that’s what you mean. Or maybe ‘That’s cool’ if that’s what you mean.”

Gypped. [Racist] There may be more hurtfully racist words than gypped or Indian giver, but they all have one thing in common: They stereotype a race of people (in this case Gypsies [now known as Roma People] or American Indians) and use the race name derisively. Some stereotypes and their derisive labels even extend beyond people, as in nag, which is literally an old horse, usually in poor condition. Animal lovers bristle when people are told to “stop nagging” because it is akin to saying, “stop acting like an elderly equine.” So, when you hear, “I got gypped” or “He’s an Indian giver,” an effective response is something like, “I know you don’t mean to be offensive, but if someone were a Gypsy or an American Indian, I’m sure they wouldn’t like being called a cheater or a liar. When you use ethnic labels to mean something unpleasant, that’s racist. Instead of saying, ‘I got gypped,’ it’s better to say, ‘I got treated unfairly.’ And instead of saying, ‘He’s an Indian giver,’ say, ‘He broke his promise.’ That way, we understand exactly who and what upset you.”

Wife Beater. [Violent] This insidious label for a men’s white tank top crept into the grade-school lexicon from popular teen culture without anyone stopping to think about the reference to domestic violence. While other clothing references are simply silly (e.g., banana hammock for a men’s Speedo racing suit), the term wife beater — as in, “Dude, you look pretty sweet in that wife beater” — is truly repugnant to men and women alike. Oddly, when I’ve asked young people to think about what they are saying, they are surprised to learn that adults take offense. All the more reason to embrace this as a teaching moment. So, when you hear, “Nice wife beater,” an effective response is something like, “You might not realize it, but you’re talking about a kind of tragic violence. It’s pretty awful to think about someone beating up the person to whom they are married. How about just calling it a tank top?”

Douche. [Sexist] Male references to female equipment or anatomy are sexist when used as put-downs. “You’re a douche” or “He’s a douche bag” or “Don’t be a pussy” are all ways of making the feminine negative. Boys, of course, are especially sensitive to feminine references because their masculinity is still developing and is therefore fragile. (Remember the biggest dig in The Sandlot? “You throw like a girl!” was a zinger because of its direct boy-girl comparison.) I’ve also heard males say things to one another like, “Take off your skirt” and “Does your vagina hurt?” which play off the same offensive idea that girls and women are weak or whiney. So, when you hear sexist remarks, an effective response is something like, “You know, to suggest that females are fragile or uncoordinated is offensive because it’s untrue. I’d rather you say, ‘I don’t like your complaining’ or ‘He’s not very brave.’ You don’t have to like another person’s behavior, but it seems unfair to use female equipment or anatomy as a jab.”

Fag. [Homophobic] Expressions such as “You’re a fag” and “That’s gay” are said to be homophobic, although many young people who say these things are adopting a linguistic convention rather than mocking another person’s sexual orientation. However, there are times when the homophobia is clear, as when boys comment, “No homo” before hugging one another. (As if all kinds of physical closeness were somehow sexual.) Whatever the intent or understanding of the speaker, the use of fag, gay, or homo gives you a perfect opportunity to discuss tolerance and diversity in all its forms. So, when you hear, “Arts and crafts are gay,” an effective response is something like, “Hey, if you don’t like arts and crafts, just say so. It’s offensive to use words like gay or fag when you mean a bad thing or bad person. At camp, we are accepting of all people, so let’s steer clear of words that put down people based on their background or sexual orientation or anything else.”

Retard. [Mental Health] The literal meaning of retard is “to slow down,” but when used as a noun, it becomes derogatory shorthand for “a mentally retarded person.” Expressions such as “That’s retarded” and “She’s a retard” vary in offensiveness, but share an insulting view of mental health. Making fun of anyone’s psychological condition is touchy, of course. I’ve even had students with bipolar disorder and attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder take umbrage with expressions such as “She’s psycho,” despite the fact that the speaker was referring to a character in a movie. So, when you hear, “You’re a retard,” an effective response is something like, “I think what you meant was ‘You’re silly’ or ‘I don’t like what you just did.’ The word retard is actually a disrespectful way to refer to a person with mental retardation. Let’s find a way to speak about people respectfully, even when we’re upset with them.”

Jesus Christ / God. [Lord’s Name in Vain] Religious and secular people around the globe use various forms of Jesus Christ as expletives. Although this usage is especially offensive to Christians, speakers probably don’t intend to insult and may not understand the full meaning of what they are saying. Nevertheless, it is unbecoming of a camper or a camp leader to exclaim, “Jesus, that was close!” or “Oh, Christ, not another meeting!” or even “Oh my God, that’s amazing!” While references to deities in any language are appropriate during prayer, blessings, and other times of worship, avoiding the expletive usage of sacred terms from any religion is respectful, plain and simple. So, when you hear someone use holy names or terms inappropriately, an effective response is something like, “I’m sure you didn’t mean to be disrespectful, but using God’s name as a swear word or as a way to emphasize your point can be offensive. You can say, ‘Oh my gosh’ instead and I’ll still understand exactly what you mean.”

Tone and Timing

As with any feedback — to a colleague or a camper — the tone and timing of your educational admonition must be sensitive. As I advocated above, the extremes of ignoring or exploding create their own problems. Between these poles is a middle ground which you must tread thoughtfully. Generally speaking, the gentler your tone and the more immediately you proffer feedback about someone’s foul language, the better.

Some instances are straightforward. A simple reprimand, such as “We don’t talk that way at camp” or “Please don’t use that word,” is probably all you need in response to most basic swear words, like shit. For offensive terms in the categories outlined above, a brief explanation is most helpful. As a youth development professional, it is your job not only to enforce boundaries — including guidelines for safe talk — but also to clarify why those boundaries exist. I encourage you to consult the examples above and respond to foul language firmly and thoughtfully, in a way that is sincere and sounds natural.

Discussion Questions

Describe some edgy or offensive language not cited in this article. How would you respond to a young person who used these words or expressions?

Different groups of youth are exposed to different cultural subgroups with different linguistic traditions. What are some expressions that you grew up using, but would no longer use as an adult who works with children?

People define themselves in part by the words they use. How would you respond to a young person who tells you: “Lay off. That’s just the way I talk.”

Christopher Thurber, PhD, ABPP, is a board-certified clinical psychologist and the co-founder of ExpertOnlineTraining.com, which hosts educational content for youth development professionals. He designed The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, ACA’s homesickness prevention DVD. Contact: chris@campspirit.com or visit www.CampSpirit.com.

Originally published in the 2012 May/June Camping Magazine.