What to do when a baby drops an F-bomb: a primer on code-switching

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You know the only people who are always sure about the proper way to raise children? Those who’ve never had any.” – Bill Cosby

The parent-teacher conferences are an amazing way to see parents and children interact with no supervision.  More often than not, it is the parents that need the correction.

Take this example: as I was walking down the hall to a classroom, I noticed a young boy with his little sister, a child of about 2, in a stroller.  Mom was sitting next to them, filling out forms and waiting to hear about Junior’s lack of focus for the umpteenth time.  The little sister then drops her sippie cup and climbs out of the stroller. As soon as little brother asks her to pick up the cup, I expected a little cooing sound, or a soft laugh from the little sister–the kind of sound most of us are conditioned to hear from toddlers. I heard the following:

“Fuck you!”

Boy did you hear it. She blurted that f-bomb so loud you could hear it over the Bruckner Expressway. The whole hallway, a sea of parents with children in tow, stopped in freezeframe, waiting to see which unfortunate soul will claim parentage of this potty-mouthed urchin. Mom was not only embarrassed, she quickly snatched the offending child and whisked them all into the classroom to hide from the shame.

Our natural instinct is to blame the parents, and with good reason. Kids are a sponge at an early age, soaking in the sights, smells and sounds of their environment. That a toddler could cuss with such ease says a lot about the home life and the level of discourse. We never could blame a child from, say, Senator Kennedy’s flock to display such behavior, although young Patrick picked up a lot from his dad–saucy language and all.

However, it is also the case that Mom, like many parents in the neighborhood, have a difficult time establishing limits on certain language in certain areas. If everyone in the building, and everyone on the block, dropped curses and slang like a walking hip-hop album, then it’s no surprise that kids will pick up on that. In short, many parents know little about code-switching.

Code-switching was a linguistic tool in use ever since immigrants settled in this country, although it was not studied in depth until the 1940s. It is a tool of both assimilation and identity for individuals that straddle cultural divides or socioeconomic divisions. The code being “switched” is the vocabulary and linguistic nuances used in everyday life. Translated into plain English, this skill allows people to speak one way at a business meeting, another way at home, and even another way with friends.

One group that has become almost synonymous with this is African Americans. The predominance of a black middle class in this country has led many researchers to conclude that code-switching is an integral part of their success. It allows black professionals to excel in the workplace while still maintaining cultural ties through family and friends.  

Even African Americans in popular culture have used code-switching. Don’t believe me? Ask Clair Huxtable, the stern but loving mother from The Cosby Show, played by Phylicia Rashad.  Notice how she speaks to outside adults and colleagues as an attorney–it is usually in a bland, friendly, almost stereotypically “white” manner.  Now wait until Theo gets in trouble with Cockroach again (a popular theme in the series) and you see a very different Clair, one that would probably ruffle the feathers of the starched suits at her law firm.

Naturally, code-switching has its critics.  Many “old school” educators charge that allowing the choice of codes between situations legitimizes what could be considered incorrect or “bad” English.  This permissiveness would then hinder children from studying “correct” English as displayed in the accepted annals of literature.  Never mind that most of the accepted “classics” came from vernacular English considered filthy in its time.   Parts of Beowulf (especially the beginning) consisted of jokes on farting and urine.  Most of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales reads like a medieval Spring Break (complete with free-flowing beer and public nudity).  Let’s not forget William Shakespeare–his raunchier plays make a Penthouse letter look like the King James Bible.

On the other hand, many critics contend that code-switching is just another form of racial heirarchy.  They contend that changing language to suit environments unlike their own is tantamount to “acting white” or worse–being an “uncle Tom.”  The simple fact that a person must change their language in certain situations places a value judgment on certain environments: the whiter the people in an area, the more “proper” and formal the tone and vocabulary. 

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this one.  Until culture changes otherwise, professional attire and etiquette is dictated by European norms in this country.  As much as individuals should strive to celebrate their identity, the needs of the marketplace dictate that a person must act in different ways in different areas.  As much as it would delight me, Snoop Dogg would not speak to a bank CEO in the same way he would to Dr. Dre.  Conversely, President Obama would not bust out into rap and black vernacular in a press conference.  If he did, I doubt he would have gotten anywhere close to his majority of votes he received in 2008.

There are cultural values that are universal, regardless of the code we use.  Disrespecting adults is not allowed in any language.  Abusing peers is not permissable in any language.  Much of what is considered “foul” language is common across socioeconomic and cultural divisions.  Like it or not, no child should be able to drop an F-bomb without some sort of intervention. 

In general, most of my students understand how to code-switch pretty well.  Walk into my school and you’ll see students addressing teachers politely, with a hearty “Good morning, Mr. D!” and so on.  In fact, the children who have difficulty in this regard are considered crazy or obstinate by their peers.  It also helps that the teachers themselves cultivate this in each classroom, which makes teaching and learning that much easier.

If I were a parent, I would introduce a child to code-switching early.  That way, the kid will not embarrass the parents by using coarse language when its inappropriate. 

Instead, the child can focus on more important things, like studying hard, or reading a book–or flinging an eraser at your friend’s head just hard enough to leave a mark.  Now that’s a marketable skill.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “What to do when a baby drops an F-bomb: a primer on code-switching

  1. “Snoop Dogg would not speak to a bank CEO in the same way he would to Dr. Dre.”

    The Wu Tang Clan, on the other hand…
    http://www.comedycentral.com/videos/index.jhtml?videoId=11887&title=wu-tang-financial

  2. Pingback: The Perils of Classroom Discipline: or, Why The Superintendant took away my Hickory Switch « Mr. D’s Neighborhood

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