It used to be simple enough, setting limits on the language my children could use. I could banish words from their vocabularies simply because their use offended mom.
I can remember scolding my 4-year-old: "We don't say 'stupid' in this house! It's a bad word, and I don't want to hear you use it again."
So "stupid" became "the s-word," off-limits in tantrums or arguments among them. That rule held for years, and "stupid" was joined by "hate" and "dummy" and a whole list of proscribed words that I deemed too hurtful to tolerate.
Now the 4-year-old is 14, and her little sisters run to me with tales of new s-words and h-words and d-words--words they say she slips into her conversations when she thinks they are not listening and knows mom's not around.
And I am forced to consider it a victory that if she's going to curse, at least she sneaks to do it.
When I was growing up, I knew kids who got their mouths washed out with soap for cussing. Now, I know families in which parents curse at their kids and the kids curse right back.
"Once they're teenagers, you really can't control how they talk," an exasperated neighbor once confided, after we'd witnessed her 16-year-old son dressing her down with a loud string of expletives.
"I figure I've got bigger things to worry about than whether he says 'damn' . . . like keeping him in school and off drugs."
Maybe she's right. Maybe concern about off-color language is quaint and outdated in an era in which kids attend church sporting tongue rings, and high school basketball players with tattoos earn straight A's.
Indeed, studies show cursing is on the upswing, particularly among women and children. Among teenagers, foul language is now not merely socially acceptable but considered "cool" by more than half the kids polled.
Still, I can't help but wonder whether the obscenities that pepper our conversation reflect not just a cheapening of our language but a debasement of our self-image as well. Are we just going with a more progressive flow or are we in the midst of a cultural sea-change that we will look back on and lament years from now?
What will it mean to my daughters, I wonder, to grow up hearing the "b-word" (think female dog) slip from the mouths of rap singers and television actors so casually. When I was young, any boy with the nerve to disrespect a girl by calling her that would have taken a whipping from her brother or father--if she didn't smack him one herself.
Today, boys routinely address their girlfriends that way, and girls use the word to greet one another. It has moved from curse word to slang, from insult to adjective.
Steve Travers, a columnist for a sports magazine based in Marina del Rey, also is troubled by the trend.
"I've used language I'm not proud of. I know nobody's perfect. But more and more these days, I hear people calling each other m----- f----- all the time. They use that word almost as a greeting to a friend, like the way people used to call you 'buddy' or 'pal.' It takes me aback every time I hear it."
And what he heard 10 days ago at a basketball game between UCLA and USC made him feel that we have reached a new low.
"We were at Pauley Pavilion, and the [UCLA] student section finished off their school song by yelling 'F--k SC' every time, every few minutes. This was orchestrated by their yell leaders, who, one would presume, operate under the imprimatur of official school policy.
"And no one seemed to notice or be bothered by it. . . .
"And I just kept thinking that [legendary former UCLA basketball coach] John Wooden must be cringing in his seat [in the arena]. Here's a man who the worst thing he ever said in his life is probably 'Goodness gracious, sakes alive,' and this is what his school has come to."
It is a change that seems to have crept up on us without our notice or permission.
Last year, my daughters--then 8 and 10 and 13--used to crawl in bed with me at night to watch our favorite television show each week. This year, we flipped it off for good after an episode that included, in the first five minutes, three mentions of that "b-word."
Am I being prudish, too protective? Maybe. But I like the fact that my 11-year-old blushes when someone says the word "sex" and my 9-year-old cries when she hears Mommy slip and swear under pressure. (OK, so I'm not perfect.)
I don't delude myself into thinking I can succeed as the language police. I will be content, I think, if my children grow up listening to other people swear but consider it something we don't do . . . like smoking or drinking Coke near bedtime or keeping our dog chained up outside.
And for now, I am satisfied that my teenage daughter is content to hear the rap music she loves on the radio, where the worst of the curse words are bleeped out . . . even though it means some songs have more bleeps than words.
And that her little sister is still innocent enough to wonder whether the singers really say all those bad words, or just record the songs with bleeps.
Sandy Banks can be reached at email@example.com.