Words of Darkness, Words of Light


We can teach youth that power in language doesn’t depend on expressions that are vulgar or profane the names of deity.

Words of Darkness, Words of Light

A father was working with one of his young sons on a project in their home when the young boy hurt his hand and let fly a string of profanity. His mother and sisters looked on in shocked silence.

The father, an active high priest, asked to know where the boy had learned such foul language. The boy’s unhesitating response mortified the father:

“I learned it from you, in the barn last week.”

The boy probably had trouble remembering his times tables. His ability to recite the Articles of Faith was likely limited. But he learned well that lesson on profanity his dad had given him, unintentionally, in the barn.

The father learned a lesson that day, too. He resolved never again to be the source of vulgar or profane language.

There are other sources, however, that will expose his children, and ours, to bad language in spite of all our best efforts.

Unfortunately, it seems that the more “civilized” we become, the more inundated by filthy language and profanity we are. Cable television brings dozens of channels into our living rooms. Video rentals put a wide variety of movies at the fingertips of our children. Magazines, newspapers, book clubs, billboards, in-store displays, direct mail, radio, music lyrics, album covers, even teachers and schoolmates—any of these may pollute our children’s cultural atmosphere with unacceptable language at times.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks has observed, “The nature and extent of profanity and vulgarity in our society is a measure of its deterioration.” (Ensign, May 1986, p. 49.)

As this problem has mushroomed, Church leaders have reached out to youth to counsel them to overcome negative influences on their language. Among the counsel they have received is this: “How you speak and the words you use tell much about the image you choose to portray. Profane, vulgar, or crude language and inappropriate or off-color jokes are offensive to the Lord. They harm your spirit and degrade you. Don’t lower yourself to use such language or jokes, even if people around you do.” (For the Strength of Youth, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1990, p. 10.)

Who bears the primary responsibility for teaching children to avoid speaking evil? Parents—the leaders in the home. Many parents say that the influence a mother and father have on the language of their children cannot be underestimated.

“Any time I hear one of my children use bad language, I sit them down and firmly explain, ‘In our family we don’t use words like that,’” said one father. He emphasized that this will not work unless the children have enough respect for their parents to want to please them with acceptable behavior.

Explanation is an important first step toward teaching children to avoid profanity. But simply telling them what to avoid will not be enough. President Ezra Taft Benson has said, “Teaching is done by precept and example, and by word and deed. A good model is the best teacher. Therefore, a father’s first responsibility is to set the proper example.” Since he was speaking in a general priesthood meeting, with only men and boys present, he pointed out that “this counsel applies to all parents and their children.” (Ensign, Nov. 1985, p. 35.)

If we as parents are to teach a principle, we must first exemplify its practice, or our words remain merely academic. We cannot excuse ourselves in doing the things we are trying to teach our children to avoid.

What is it that we should be teaching our children to avoid?

Blasphemy, or taking the name of the Lord in vain, is a violation of one of the Ten Commandments. The name of God is sacred and is used by holders of the holy priesthood to perform ordinances and miracles. (See D&C 84:66–69.)

Moses knew of the power of the names of Deity and warned his people that “the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.” (Ex. 20:7.) In ancient times, the penalty for blasphemy was death by stoning. (See Lev. 24:16.)

Blasphemy is only one element of the profanity problem that President David O. McKay described as “all too prevalent” in society, and “though we say it with embarrassment, all too frequently used in the Church.” (Improvement Era, Nov. 1948, p. 686.)

Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained that profanity “embraces any language that shows contempt for holy things, that breathes a spirit of irreverence or blasphemy, or that is vulgar in nature, thus leaving a mental impression of unclean and unwholesome things. Profanity,” he emphasized, “is an evidence of a diseased soul.” (“Profanity,” Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, Inc., 1966, p. 602.)

We know that the brain controls what words are spoken, but when we or our children allow a profanity to find a place in our vocabularies, the profanity, and not the brain, often seems to be in control.

Profanity is a cyclic problem. The Spirit of the Lord withdraws from the presence of profanity, leaving the user with no spiritual guidance. Consequently the profanity may increase. (See Ensign, May 1986, p. 51.)

We must work closely and carefully with our children to help them choose to avoid that cycle or break the cycle if they have already begun. We cannot keep them from ever being exposed to bad language, but we can keep much of it at arm’s length. Our care in making the effort, if we do it in the right spirit, can have a positive effect as our children realize how important we consider the matter to be.

In the past, many kinds of punishments have been used to try to eliminate profanity from the vocabularies of the young. Washing the offending mouth out with soap or giving a dose of castor oil were not uncommon practices in some homes. One high priest recently told his quorum that when he was young, his mother made him eat black pepper on a first offense and then raised the level of punishment to red pepper on the second offense. “I don’t know what would have come next after a third offense,” he said. “The red pepper was enough for me to keep from ever doing it again.”

Many specialists in child development would frown on such corporal punishment today, suggesting, instead, methods that will encourage children to make changes themselves.

The Family Home Evening Resource Book devotes a lesson idea to this topic. The lesson includes a short list of suggestions to help families work together to overcome the problem.

The suggestions include:

“1. Promise to repent immediately of profanity. If anyone forgets and uses profanity, he will apologize immediately to anyone who heard him and ask the Lord’s forgiveness and help in overcoming the problem.

“2. Decide that offensive or obscene words will be considered ‘garbage can’ words. Post a picture of a garbage can in your house to remind family members that they must mentally dispose of such words.

“3. Make it a practice to refuse to listen to or laugh at dirty stories. Forget the stories, and do not repeat them to others.

“4. Promise to pay someone a sum of money for each profane word you speak.

“5. If a family member is having a serious problem with profanity, have him fast, pray, and, when appropriate, ask for a priesthood blessing to help him make his language pure and acceptable to the Lord.

“6. Little children sometimes use bad words without knowing their meaning. When this occurs, the parent or older brother or sister who hears the words should kindly explain to the child that we do not use those words in our family.” (Family Home Evening Resource Book, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1983, p. 216. The book, stock number 31106, is available in English from the Salt Lake Distribution Center for $2.50. It may also be ordered in Chinese, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, and Thai.)

“We obviously cannot control all that goes on in our presence,” Elder Oaks has said. “Modern revelation suggests one alternative for those who would be clean: ‘Go ye out from among the wicked. Save yourselves.’ (D&C 38:42.) Sometimes we can remove ourselves from language that is profane or vulgar. If this is not possible, we can at least register an objection so that others cannot conclude that our silence means approval or acquiescence.” (Ensign, May 1986, p. 52.)

There are approximately five hundred thousand words in the English language. With such an arsenal, parents can go on the offensive in the battle and show their children how to use powerful, effective, and moving words without resorting to speech that simply shocks. Most of us probably know the meaning of twice as many words as we normally use in conversation or writing, but we don’t exercise that vocabulary—primarily because we are not in the habit of doing so.

One indicator of the power of well-chosen words is that they are the key our Heavenly Father uses to unlock the secrets of the universe for us. He opens the conduit of revelation via the Holy Ghost through words found in scriptures, temple ordinances, priesthood blessings, and meetings.

The scriptures are literature themselves, studied for their form and beauty even by those who feel no sense of their sacred nature. “How forcible are right words!” Job observed. (Job 6:25.) “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver,” Solomon said. (Prov. 25:11.)

Shakespeare can warm our hearts. The newspaper can incite us to action. Mary Shelley can frighten us. Mark Twain can amuse us. Agatha Christie can intrigue us. C. S. Lewis can entrance us. And they do it with words.

Exposing ourselves and our children to good writing is a fruitful first step in expanding the size of our working vocabularies. We can lead our children into literature and television and films that are uplifting in tone and language. In addition to the scriptures and Church publications, there is a wealth of good material in libraries and on video that can enlighten, entertain, and enthrall young minds without exposing them to the pollution of profanity. But we will need to make the effort to help children find the best material, instead of merely settling for whatever comes easily to hand.

President Gordon B. Hinckley urged us to choose the Savior as our role model: “I know that the Lord is pleased when we use clean and virtuous language, for He has set an example for us. His revelations are couched in words that are affirmative, that are uplifting, that encourage us to do what is right and to go forward in truth and goodness.” (Ensign, Nov. 1987, p. 48.)

[photos] Photography by John Luke

John S. Gholdston, a staff member in the Communications Department at Brigham Young University, serves on the high council of the Springville Utah Hobble Creek Stake.