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“I don’t care” was profanity of the highest order at my house.

Our kids love to sing “Oh Be Careful, Little Eyes.” I’ve been leery of this song because it sounds somewhat legalistic to me, although it does go on to say that God is looking down in love and not in fierce condemnation. So I’ve set my wariness aside, and now I sing “Oh be careful, little tongue, what you say”with full voice, since this verse has always been the most problematic for me.

I don’t say bad words often, other than the occasional bedtime-routine-gone-wrong, during which I might say a few to myself. Our kids are only 5 and 3, but they are already discovering the power of words and the additional power of naughty words, even though they don’t know any real swear words yet.

Eli came into the kitchen one day and, upon seeing all the cupboards wide open, exclaimed, “What in the forehead!?” I don’t know where he got that phrasing or how he chose “forehead”’ as his key word, but I realized he is already putting the building blocks of language together. It won’t be long before a word spicier than “forehead” comes off a not-so-careful tongue.

I don’t recall my parents making a big deal of swear words when I was growing up. Taking the Lord’s name in vain was an obvious no-no, but since my parents are Dutch immigrants, most words of an edgy nature didn’t even show up on their radar, much less get reprimanded. I do, however, remember three words that my mother would not tolerate: “I don’t care.”

Whether I said it about the dinner menu or a more meaningful issue, “I don’t care” was profanity of the highest order at my house. My little tongue learned to be very careful indeed when it came to this forbidden language. Mom seemed totally offended by it, and not just in a legalistic way. For her it was deeply spiritual, regarding my heart more than my tongue.

“How can a Christian say they don’t care?” she would ask me. I had no answer for that and wondered why she took my flippancy so seriously.

Like most things my mom used to emphasize, I have finally come to see the wisdom in this. In her book Acedia and Me, Kathleen Norris writes about the danger of living with an “absence of care.” When life gets too demanding or people become too complicated, we simply avoid the hard work it takes to engage, and in doing so we slide into not caring . . . or what Norris calls the “ease of indifference.”

It was the indifference, I think, that was so obscene to my mother. For someone to live under God’s banner of love and then to say the words “I don’t care” . . . well, in her mind it was the ultimate way to take the Lord’s name in vain—to curse with your life instead of just with your words. As one pastor put it, “Jesus came to take the sting out of death, but we can help take the sting out of life.” Perhaps caring is the first step toward that.

Because of my mother’s wisdom, I will probably pay more attention to the words my kids use regarding caring rather than swearing. Very soon they will realize the power their words hold: the power to heal or wound. The power to show care or indifference. Which is why I might add a verse to that “Oh Be Careful” song:

Oh be careful, little heart, how you care,
Oh be careful, little heart, how you care,
for the Father up above
looked down on you with love,
so be careful, little heart, how you care.

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