Teaching Discernment: Bad Words in Books


True Story: We’re getting in the car after a park date with our homeschool friends, and one of my 9-year-old sons says:

Mom! We learned some new bad words from Jim*! He told us about the F-word….

*name changed for privacy sake. I mention that this child is homeschooled only to point out that our children will come into contact with the world and sin no matter where they are or what kind of schooling they are doing.

So, what’s a mom to do? This mom just said nonchalantly, “Oh, which f-word?” My son cheerfully spelled it out. He then asked if I knew that word. I said, more casually than I felt, “Sure! What other words did you hear?” When he said he wasn’t sure he wanted to tell me (not realizing he’d started with one of the worst), I said, “Try me. I bet I’ve heard them.” When he tentatively said, “the a-word.” I said, “A-S-S?” Gasps ensued. I explained what it meant and asked what else “Jim” had told them. After running through a few more, it sunk in: MOM. KNOWS. ALL. THE. WORDS.

Books Provide Vicarious Experiences

Isn’t it marvelous how the Lord orchestrates the small events in our children’s lives to prime the pump, as it were, for a teachable moment? My kids have a nicely varied reading diet. I’m reading Howard Pyle’s King Arthur, Minn of the Mississippi, and The Year Money Grew on Trees aloud; we’re also listening to The Two Towers as a family whenever we’re all five in the car. The kids, on their own, are finishing up D’Aulaire’s Norse Myths, a scientist biography, and reading some current realistic fiction titles chosen from a carefully curated list by yours truly. The son mentioned above is also reading White Fang. I tell you this only to illustrate that we need both old AND new books in our reading diets. Why?rr_fort

All books provide vicarious experiences: we bravely fought the Sable Knight with King Arthur and relished Arthur’s bravery. We’re learning about apple orchards and plain hard work alongside Jackson in The Year Money Grew on Trees. Older books offer plenty of cautionary tales: just skim the summaries of most of Shakespeare’s plays for issues of violence, sex, betrayal, and the like. And my son has experienced frozen desperation amidst howling wolves in White Fang. But new books offer unique, contemporary vicarious experiences.

The same son is also reading–and thoroughly enjoying–Fort as his current realistic fiction choice. After the park experience above, he was reading it and started telling me all the “bad words” in the book. Not having read the book myself, I reread Janie’s review. Ahh…. now I know what we’re dealing with. “What sort of bad words?” I asked. He spelled out “g-e-e-z” and “d-a-r-n.”

TEACHABLE MOMENT: Strike while the iron is hot

Since this was clearly on his mind, I gathered the kids around and we talked. We read Ephesians 4 about no unwholesome words coming out of our mouths. We read the 3rd Commandment about not taking the name of the Lord in vain. And we talked about the difference between profanity (3rd commandment violations) and vulgarity (of the F-word variety). One is expressly forbidden. The other is in a general behavioral category of things about which we must exercise discernment.

The kids were so into our discussion.

In fact, they were far more receptive to this discussion than had they not heard bad words on the playground, had a mom willing to talk about these bad words, and read some bad words in a book. We had fantastic character discussions using the book characters as excellent examples without having to vilify a friend. We talked about not saturating ourselves with bad-word-media, but that reading/watching/listening to anything other than Scripture requires us to be vigilant and discerning. I commended my son for telling me about the bad words in the book. And I told him it was okay to enjoy the book–I was glad he was noting the minor offenses but also picking up some great character stuff along the way! In fact, our discussion evolved into a discussion of bullying and name calling in general (the good guys in the book grow significantly in this same area). I do not “discuss” each book with my children at this level, but I’m a firm believer in striking while the iron is hot!

We Set a Precedent

rr_white-fangI don’t mind that my son reads an occasional “darn” in a book. Given his reading diet, he reads plenty of stuff that doesn’t have that word in it. Instead, he has thoroughly enjoyed Fort with all its humor and downright “boy-ness.” And we set the precedent for enjoying a book, talking about a book, and bringing Scripture to bear. Interestingly, White Fang has more serious bad words in it than Fort, but because the events in that book are so far removed from my son’s life, they lacked the immediacy of the context in Fort. It was only after the above discussion that he went back to White Fang and brought the same understanding to bear.

Don’t Be An Ostrich

We cannot stick our heads in the sand. Even our young children can no longer wander the library and choose a picture book at random off the shelf without risking encountering some very disturbing material. Instead, let’s teach them from the beginning to bring concerns AND delights to us from their books. Use sites like ours and others to know some good talking points in advance. We list “cautions” in our reviews partly for this reason–so you can determine what your child might encounter in a given title. Ask your children questions. Talk about the hard stuff and the easy stuff. Enjoy reading AND being discerning. Some of the most meaningful books have some of the messiest stuff in them–this is true for old books and new books, both!

Your Turn! What sorts of helpful vicarious experiences have you had with your children amongst the pages of books? Is there a book that has become a family favorite despite some hard things in it?


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Betsy Farquhar

Betsy is the Managing Editor at Redeemed Reader. When she reads ahead for you, she uses sticky notes instead of book darts and willfully dog ears pages even in library books. Betsy is a fan of George MacDonald, robust book discussions, and the Oxford comma. She lives with her husband and their three children in the beautiful Southeast.

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  1. Esther ter Reehorst on August 7, 2023 at 7:29 pm

    Thank you Betsy, this is such a helpful reflection! I really love how you handle these subjects with so much wisdom, and are not afraid to deal with ‘messy stuff’.

    It gives me confidence to go forward and embrace this journey, now my kids grow older and start reading more on their own. No fear!

    Love, Esther ❤️

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