By Elizabeth Pantley
It's a curious affliction: the tendency to talk about
one's children in the most brutally honest and hurtful ways without
realizing that the cherished subjects of the offensive comments are
listening to every word. Right now, you may be saying to yourself,
"This never happens to me." Perhaps. Perhaps not. But I
think there's a good chance you'll see yourself in at least one of
the following examples.
Unloading a cart full of Cheerios, macaroni-and-cheese
and hot dogs at the grocery store's checkout counter, a harried
mother chats animatedly to the cashier. "Only one more week 'til
summer vacation, then the kids will be home all day. I can already
hear the bickering and whining! I don't know how I'll manage to live
through the next few months! Want to buy two kids, cheap?" The
cashier laughs and shakes her head, "Oh, no thanks, I have my
own! I know what you mean! I'm already waiting for next
September!" In their supposedly innocent light-hearted banter,
neither one notices the shopper's two children standing right beside
her, listening quietly to every hurtful word. Neither one notices
a pair of small eyes cast downward just so, or a nervous little cough.
Consider Amir's situation as he walks in the door after another
grueling day of work. His joyful, eager children run for Daddy, but
Mom spies him coming in just before they have their chance to pounce.
And the daily gripe session begins. "I am SO glad you're home. I
need five minutes of peace and quiet. These kids drove me crazy all
day! Abdi and Sheida have been like wild animals. They were fighting
in the living room and knocked over the potted fern. Aria has been
acting like a two-year-old-having temper tantrums over every little
thing. The wash machine is broken again and I have four stacks of
kids' dirty clothes piled up in the laundry room . . ." Quietly
and unnoticed, three dispirited children fade into the background of
the family room and turn on the TV.
Then there's Megan, chatting on the phone with her best friend. As
usual, the conversation turns to the daily issues with their
children. Megan dramatically relates how very annoyed she was with
Kyle at baseball this morning. "I was so embarrassed!" she
groans. "The second time Kyle struck out he stomped his foot
like a baby and threw his helmet on the ground. You'd think he was
five years old instead of 15!" She chuckled. " I think
adolescent hormones are taking over." Meanwhile, said adolescent
is just a few feet away, pretending to work on his homework-but
actually suffering the embarrassment of listening to his mother talk
about his very real pain as if it were some big joke.
I know many parents who slip into the type of unfortunate
conversation of a mother and father who approached me after a recent
parenting lecture. They were anxious to talk with me, bemoaning their three-year-old's
latest behavior problems. "Molly's been a good girl until
recently. It's like we've entered the terrible twos a bit late. She's
just no fun anymore. She's constantly yelling 'No!' to us and won't
listen to a word we say. We've tried to be patient, but she's pushed
us to the end of our rope!" I glance down to see a little
three-year-old (Molly, perhaps?) clinging tightly to her father's
leg. But she's only three, she doesn't understand what they're
saying, this couldn't possibly hurt her.
Or so we think.
The Hidden Message
"I can talk about you all I want, and since you're just a child
you're not listening to what I say anyway. You're not worthy of the
same respect I'd give another adult. Besides, this is how I REALLY
feel about you, and I don't care about your
feelings-you're just a kid so your feelings aren't important."
Think About It
If you don't believe that your children hear your
casual remarks, try this: As you chat with a friend or your spouse,
casually slip a question in the middle of your conversation.
Something along the lines of, "Do you think we should round up
the kids and take them out for ice cream?" Be ready to hop in
the car when you hear the chorus of, "Yes!" from the four
corners of the house.
Children do not always react outwardly to what they
hear. However, if you could see into their hearts, you would find a
record of every careless word, every thoughtless action, every adult
laugh, that here, in the most tender and vulnerable of places, was
not found so funny. Here would you find also significant-and often,
inappropriate-meaning attached to these products of childhood
observation. Children struggle through the growing-up process, and
along the way they question who they are and what their meaning is to
this world and to their parents. A parent's potent words, and the
multitude of other comments, gestures and actions, help a child paint
a picture of who he really is, and how important he is in this world.
How tragic for that child if, despite how we really feel, that
painting is not the masterpiece we envision!
Changes You Can Make
Given the extreme importance of your words, it simply
makes good sense to choose them carefully. From now on, if your child
is within hearing distance assume that he may be listening-and don't
say anything about him that you wouldn't say to him.
If you see a bit of yourself in the previous examples,
you're no different than most parents. But that doesn't mean that
this behavior needn't cease. Such a simple change could have a very
positive impact on your children's lives. As you talk about your
children-and let's face it, they're among our favorite topics-pay
attention to how those words sound from your child's point of view.
If you think that what you're saying, or about to say, can be
construed as hurtful or embarrassing, stop. Talk about something else.
If you're not sure what you're saying has a negative
impact or not, ask yourself how you would feel if you overheard
someone talking about you in those exact words. Or perhaps you can
ask yourself, "If I were talking about my boss/spouse/best
friend to another person, with the object of my comments listening,
would I ever say such a thing?" If your answer is a mortified
laugh, then stop mid-sentence and rephrase your comments in a more
positive way, if you find them absolutely crucial to the conversation.
Better yet, find something shining and wonderful to
say about your child, and be sure your child hears it. That type of
"casual comment" can yield life-enhancing benefits to your
children. It may help them compose a more wonderful vision of
themselves. An image that they can carry with them for the rest of
Elizabeth Pantleys new book is the wake-up call every
parent needs, a consciousness-raising journey through the small
moments of parenthood. Each chapter uses warmth, compassion, and
humor to gently tweak the consciences of even the best parents, and
inspire them to raise their children in a more sensitive manner.
-- William Sears, M.D. from the foreword
(Excerpted with permission by NTC/Contemporary Publishing Group Inc.
from Hidden Messages What Our Words and Actions are Really
Telling Our Children by Elizabeth Pantley, copyright 2001)
About the Author
Parenting educator, Elizabeth Pantley, is the president of Better
Beginnings, Inc., a family resource and education company.
She is a regular radio show guest and often quoted as a parenting
expert in magazines such as Parents, Parenting, Working Mother,
Woman's Day, Good Housekeeping and Redbook.
She publishes a newsletter, Parent Tips, that is distributed in
schools nationwide, and is the author of Kid Cooperation: How to Stop
Yelling, Nagging and Pleading and Get Kids to Cooperate.
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