Were Elmo to start swearing at Big Bird on "Sesame Street," I might get a little concerned for the children of America. Jane Fonda using a particularly vulgar term for an intimate part of the female anatomy on the "Today" show, however, does not worry me in the least, and I'm pretty sure that America's youth remains largely unaffected.
Realistically, Fonda made a seemingly honest mistake as the term she used appears in the title of the section of a well-known play she would be performing. She didn't use the word as an insult, nor was she appearing in a segment likely to hold much interest for your average child.
The word, while crude and decidedly inappropriate for use in polite company, should not shock or horrify any normal adult. I'd rather not hear that particular term over a bowl of Lucky Charms in the morning, but like all adults, I've heard it before and don't need anyone to protect me from it.
As a parent and as a person, I also have no problem with adults on a primetime television show speaking the way people actually speak, which tends to include some salty language. I'd prefer, however, if the man sitting next to me and my son at Friendly's would stop swearing.
The major different in these two situations is that a parent has control over what television shows his child sees, but I have no control over a person in a public place who seems really angry at his Fishamajig. Admittedly, I've gotten quite upset at a Happy Ending Sundae and have wanted to curse out my patty melt, but I've managed to restrain myself due to the presence of young people.
At four years old, my son still considers calling me "stupid" the worst insult imaginable. While I hope he never comes up with anything worse, I'm pretty sure that despite my relatively PG-rated language and my best efforts at protecting his young ears, he's likely to pick up some coarser insults soon.
Completely protecting your children from hearing bad language would require isolating them entirely from society. Lock your child in the basement or chain him or her up in the attic, and you can guarantee the youngster only hears whatever words you share.
Of course, there's no guarantee that isolating your child from the world will protect him. Even though I've never been one to curse much, I tend to let the foul language fly when I experience unexpected physical pain. As a parent I try to make sure this never happens in front of my son, but should I smash my finger with a hammer or unexpectedly scald myself with boiling water, some words may slip out that he should not hear.
Whether he learns those words from me, from kids at his daycare or by overhearing people in a restaurant, my son's exposure to foul language is inevitable. As a parent, you are responsible for educating your kids as to when and where certain words can be used and what words should pretty much never be said.
That's not to say that my son, or any other kid with decent parents, won't become fascinated with his newfound power to shock when he learns a certain word. My son told me, "Take your pants off so I can see your butt" the other day at the grocery store, and when I told him not to say that, he repeated it endlessly.
Still, in the end, an involved parent who teaches right from wrong usually wins out over anything Jane Fonda might say to Matt Lauer or anything that gets overheard on a street corner. I expect my son to use some foul language from time to time when he's older. I also expect he'll know when he can say certain things and when he has to grit his teeth and say "goshdarnit," or "oh, fudge."
Daniel B. Kline's work appears in over 100 papers weekly. His new book, a collection of columns, Easy Answers to Every Problem, can be ordered at Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com. Daniel B. Kline can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.