When the mothers find that no amount of re-education will reform their youngsters, they declare a full-scale war. On Canada--where the film originated.
"Blame society," they howl in one catchy musical number, "blame TV, blame the government, blame Canada!"
But blaming forces at large for those things we cannot control--in this case, children swearing--probably isn't the answer.
Psychologist John Gray, author of "Children Are from Heaven" (HarperCollins, $26), says parents need to exert firm control over their children until they reach middle school age, when reason and logic become concepts children can understand.
"No" must be followed by reason and logic rather than punishment, Gray says, because punishment and threats are not ways to deal with kids anymore.
"Parents often end up placating children because they're afraid the children won't like them," Gray says. "If children are out of control, (parents) keep control by giving them timeouts, by saying, `Go into this room and lose control there.' Children need to learn the skill of managing emotion." Such a skill, Gray says, often begins with managing language.
But some parents don't buy into that. They're concerned that if they control what kinds of words their child is allowed to use, they will interfere with that child's language development.
"It's not good to over-react to (swearing)," says Maine resident Dave Corey, whose 2-year-old son, Sam, repeats most everything he hears. "Overreacting allows them to lock the word into their brain and use it to get your attention. . . . At this age, to police a child's use of language is extremely counterproductive, so I'm not going to punish (Sam) for my misjudgment of word usage around him. I would never give a negative response to him trying to learn language."
In a widely publicized case of verbal license happened in August 1998, a canoeist in Michigan fell out of his boat after hitting a rock. The string of expletives he uttered was overheard by a nearby family. Covering her 3-year-old daughter's ears, Tammy Smith told the New York Times in June, "I didn't want her to repeat what he was saying."
The canoeist, Timothy J. Boomer, had broken a Michigan law dating back more than a century that prohibits swearing in front of women and children. In August, Boomer was ordered to perform four days of community service and either pay a $75 fine or spend three days in jail; Boomer opted for the fine.
Boomer's case opened up larger questions of the sorts of power language holds, whether that power needs to be curtailed and, if so, when? And by whom? Because language evolves over time, words once considered intolerable, like damn and hell, are now regularly heard on prime time television and radio. While other words, like the f-word, have remained taboo since the 16th Century.
Steven McCornack, professor of language and discourse at Michigan State University, says English wasn't formalized in spelling and grammar until the mid-19th Century and that it is constantly changing.
"Everyone talks about English as some sort of sacred text," McCornack says. "It in itself is a slang version of Latin, Nordic and Old English. What constitutes words as being profane comes from a culture seeing what is taboo, and that varies widely."
In the U.S., sex and bodily function are the two most common examples of topics that are subject to euphemism and profanity.
"Americans are so unsettled by the symbolic references that we disguise them in different ways," McCornack says, "like fudge, shoot and gosh darnit. What happens is the culture comes together and says we're all going to agree that this representation is bad and this one isn't -- like fecal matter and s***."
Linguist Angela Della-Volpe from California State University at Fullerton says ultimately the function of language is emotive, whether it's an adult expressing frustration or a playground bully trying to establish status.
"Swear words are really a way of releasing stress and not intended to communicate anything," she says. "On the other hand, language is a way to get a response from people. If words are expressed right, you have captured reality. This is the part of humans that makes language magical. If everybody used swear words, after a while they'd lose the punch. But someone will come up with something else because you still need a means to release frustration."
Last June, even ABC News made headlines when Ted Koppel, on a late-night broadcast with Serbs who had evaded his questions concerning war crimes, used the word "bull"It was the consistent evasion that prompted Ted's response," wrote senior producer Richard Harris in response to e-mail complaints he'd received. "For those who have watched `Nightline' throughout its 20-year history, you will know Ted uses language carefully, and when he utters a word that many may find objectionable, it is done with a purpose. Reasonable people can disagree whether it was an appropriate choice of words."
Although Koppel's use of profanity on network television raised eyebrows, most agree that children, at least, need to be taught the appropriate and inappropriate times to use swear words. For parents who swear regularly, their kids will inevitably swear, Gray says, then citing his own daughter's foray into the vulgar linguistic forest when she reached middle school, as an example.
"I (told her) the reason I don't want you to swear is that it may not be appropriate," Gray recalls of the confrontation he had with her over bad language. "When you're around me or our family or our relatives, I don't want you to. I'm the adult, and I know when it's appropriate and when it's not. We can do what (happens) in the movie `Star Trek,' when they say, `Permission to speak freely, sir.' If you feel like you need to vent, then you can say, `permission to speak freely' and you can say whatever you want to say. But if it's in inappropriate situations, you'll have to wait."
So far, Gray claims this approach has worked, and that its strength lies not in punishment or threat, but in communication, a matter of what he calls respect and response.
One of the strongest arguments against swearing, particularly with the alarming increase in school crime, has been its inexorable link to violence. A recent study by Dorothy Espelage at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign claimed that in a sample of more than 500 children at a Midwestern middle school, 80 percent had engaged in bullying acts, like physical aggression, ridicule and threats, within a 30-day period.
"Kids say name-calling is more hurtful than anyone throwing a punch. If you walk through a middle school today, the cussing is amazing. It's because teachers now don't take ownership of the halls. The language is why we did the study," Espelage says.
Indeed, one of "South Park's" underlying themes is the irony of starting a war over words. Clearly, the mothers' message was: Violence is okay, swearing is not.
In an effort to curb swearing and the violence often associated with it, a new Louisiana law will now require school children to use "sir" and "ma'am," along with Mr., Ms., Mrs. or Miss when addressing teachers. But in a Sept. 23 Chicago Tribune commentary, reprinted from Education Week, Dennis Baron, head of the English Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, wrote: "Language doesn't take well to being legislated. It's easier to smuggle contraband language into school than contraband Coke. The real message the Louisiana law sends to students is this: If we can't earn your respect, we'll require it instead."
The fact remains that swearing is among the first things children learn with language. It's derived, Della-Volpe says, from the Latin notion of nomen est omen. If you name it, it exists. The power of language ultimately rests not with the perpetrator but with the listener. "I've never seen the canoeist's transcript," Steve McCornack says, "but I imagine it'd be similar to what I'd say if I fell out of a boat into a cold river."