What the [Bleep]?!?!

What to do when profanity takes you by surprise



Though parents may take every precaution to limit their child’s exposure to foul language, it seems inevitable that occasionally profanity or lewd expletives will show up in the most unexpected places. 

In recent weeks, NBC News, in reporting about offensive language the President is said to have used to describe certain countries, used the actual words, unedited (in stark contrast to its network news competitors, who reported the same story without using the actual words); and then the same network subsequently allowed an unedited F-word to air during “Saturday Night Live.”

These are hardly isolated incidents. There have been numerous occasions in the past where someone was caught on a “hot mic” using foul language during a live broadcast; where a sports figure, caught on camera in a moment of excitement, dropped an expletive; a song performed live during an awards show employed a four-letter word and the network wasn’t quick enough in dumping the audio…

If you live with children and watch any amount of television, the probability is that something like this is bound to happen sooner or later. So, what do you do?

1. Minimize the risk by avoiding live broadcasts

Certain types of programs carry greater risk of an unedited profanity sneaking past the network censors. Live sports events and awards shows are especially prone to such incidents. If these are TV events your family enjoys watching together; consider pre-recording, and watching with your family later after you’ve had an opportunity to vet the content.

2. Don’t make a big deal about it

If your child is younger, there’s a good chance the word or words went right over their head, anyhow. An exaggerated reaction; or immediately and indignantly grabbing the remote and dramatically turning off the TV or changing the channel will likely only call attention to the offending word – and prompt more curiosity – than discreetly changing the channel or turning off the TV at a more natural break in the program.

3. If your child heard the word and asks about it…

Every child goes through a stage where they are looking for ways to get a big reaction. The bigger your reaction to the offending word, the greater the likelihood that the child will repeat it to elicit that big reaction again. Be matter-of-fact, and then move on.

4. With older children…

The likelihood is that they’ve probably heard it before. Here’s a good opportunity to share and reinforce your family’s values when it comes to how they express themselves and what words they choose.

5. Push-back against it

You don’t have to just accept TV’s declining standards with respect to foul-language. Write to the network and to the sponsors of the program. The Parents Television Council provides resources to help you take action. If the networks and sponsors are put on notice, they will likely make more of an effort with future broadcasts to edit out the offending language. By contrast, if they hear from no one, they will likely only continue to loosen the reins. According to Geoffrey Hughes, author of Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English, “The influence of Hollywood has become a dominant factor [in the shift in attitudes towards swearing], initially for restraint, but subsequently for license.” If you care about the culture in which your children are growing-up, then we have an obligation to push back against those who are trying to corrode it.


Melissa Henson is the program director of the Parents Television Council, a nonpartisan education organization advocating responsible entertainment. (www.ParentsTV.org)