There is a term we use around the ranch called the “hard-fast flexible.” 

It comes up in conversation as follows: 

“Hey, Matt, ” I say. “What should I do when a boy won’t stop cussing?” (Matt Foster has been our program director and lead therapist for the last 6 years, so he’s had to answer this question a hundred times, from two different sides.)

“Well, ” Matt begins. “I’d start with your relationship. What can you do build rapport with this boy? Can you come alongside him, lifting him (and his diction) to a higher level? Rules without relationship equals rebellion.” 

“I’ve tried that, ” I respond, somewhat exasperated and feeling like this approach has been a dead end. I’ve heard this before, and I’ve bent over backwards in my attempts to connect and be relational. “I need something else.” 

“Perhaps, ” he continues patiently, “you haven’t created clear boundaries. This young man may not understand what you think is a “cuss word.” We all have slightly different definitions when it comes to such a hot topic.  Are we counting euphemism and idiom and different shades of connotation?”

Well, no, I think. I haven’t exactly spelled it out for him. He may think he’s doing pretty well in the profanity department. It’s possible that we have different notions of what qualifies. 

“Or, ” he adds, “cussing may be a survival tool for him. He may have no other words to express how he’s feeling, and if he doesn’t express how he’s feeling, he’ll explode in other ways. You have a lot of words at your disposal, Axel. This boy doesn’t.”

I can think of several objections to this line of reasoning. Indulgence doesn’t lead to self control. Giving into anger and hate doesn’t make it go away. Just ask Darth Vader. But Matt is right in one sense. I hadn’t really considered that this boy’s cussing is a cry for help. 

But before I can add my two cents, he tosses out a few other thoughts. 

The boy may think my standards are unrealistic and prudish. He may believe that cussing is a sign of toughness that keeps other people from picking on him. He may employ shock effect to push me way, testing to see if I’ll return for more abuse. If I come back after being told to do things to myself that are physically impossible, it may signal to him that I care.

On the other side, he may just have a bad habit that needs to be broken. He needs my help, guidance, encouragement, and yes even, dare I say it, consequences, to help him learn. He might need pushups, work hours, privilege restrictions. Ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. He won’t benefit from enabling, pacifying, and a misguided sense of tolerance. 

“But, ” and with Matt, there is always a but, “you don’t stop doing something because some guy you’ve known for a few weeks holds you captive in cow country and tells you it’s a good idea…regardless of how nice he is, or how many Beatles records he has in his personal collection.” (Ouch. That one hurt, Matt.) 

“At the end of the day, ” Matt concludes, “it’s just a hard-fast flexible.” I take a deep breath and let the air out slowly. 

Another one of those. Another problem that can’t be solved with some system or sage advice. With magic beans, silver bullets, or quick fixes. 

There are no cure-alls or panaceas when working with victims of abuse or neglect. There are none in the world of addiction. 

And there are none, for that matter, in the sad case of the human heart. We are all sinners saved by grace, and grace is a messy, hard-fast flexible on its best day. 

NOTE: For those who don’t know, Matt and Jessica Foster will be moving back to Arkansas in April. We will miss them dearly. They are tireless advocates for struggling children and their families, blessed with the ability to both listen for what is not spoken and to speak what people don’t want to hear. Their contributions to WBR’s growth and sustainability cannot be overestimated. 

boarding school for troubled boys