Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Think It (If You Must), But Don't Say It

Three days ago, I finished reading The Book Thief, in which an ongoing theme is the power of wordsThe protagonist is Liesel, who is nine years old when the story begins. It is 1939 and she quickly realizes that the words of Hitler contained enough power to rule Germany and a vast area of surrounding countries, ultimately sending millions of innocent people to their deaths.

While history, both distant and recent, has shown me the same or similar atrocities as Liesel witnessed, it is the little, common, day to day words that I hear that can pack a big punch—a punch that has a lifelong gradual effect. Much of the time, the speaker doesn't even realize his or her power.

Ironically, the punch is often delivered to children from their loving parents.

In a perfect world, we'd all be smart, talented, and good looking—among the obvious traits of being loving and giving. I can't imagine that world; it sounds like heaven. But while we're here, it would be great if we could improve upon the delivery of our opinions.

When I was eight years old, my brother began to tease me about a certain body part. I doubt that the teasing lasted more than a few days, but during one episode, my mother laughed. That was all it took for the indelible mark to be formed. It took a couple years of maturing to realize that the body feature was normal. Fortunately, I've never been overly self-conscious, allowing my imperfections to dictate the course of my life… well, maybe. I wonder about others.

Numerous times, I've heard children being told:
  • You're too short
  • Your hair is too curly or kinky
  • That class is for smart people
  • You need some more muscles
  • Get out of the sun - you're dark enough
  • You need some sun - you're too white
  • Your feet look like boats
  • You have elephant legs
  • You have chicken legs
  • Etc. Etc. Etc.
Or, if not directed toward the victim child, another child (often a sibling) in his or her presence will be complimented:
  • You're so nice and talll...
  • You're so smart
  • You're only 14! You're so big and muscular
  • I love your blonde hair and blue eyes
  • You look good in everything you wear
  • You're so pretty
  • You're so handsome
  • You have your dad's good looks
  • You have your mom's brains
  • Etc. Etc. Etc.
Albeit, fairly mild stuff.  (This is not about abusive situations.)

A lesson I learned from my mother came from a story she told me. When my brother and I were toddlers, an aunt said to Mom, "He's so cute," to which Mom replied, "Both of my children are cute." (My brother had more of the physical characteristics of what was—and still is—considered a good-looking black person.) History repeated itself when a shopper told my two year old how pretty she looked in her pretty dress as my four year old stood by. My older daughter probably paid no attention to the woman; however, I said to her, "Your dress is pretty, too." The embarrassed woman apologized as I kept walking. It was no big deal, but maybe a lesson for her - the shopper.

I look at my kids and I don't see physical perfection (whatever that is); sometimes, not even close. Nor are they candidates for Mensa, embellished with extraordinary personalities. All three have tease-worthy characteristics, but I refrain… most of the time some of the time. In other words, I try to think before I talk; to choose words that will promote balance and confidence instead of insecurity, but not holding back so much that results in a fragile child. On the other hand, overdoing it with non-stop compliments might create a sense of superiority. Cliché, but kids don't come with an instruction manual.

Of course, kids are not the only recipients of the life-changing words that have the power to shape us and mold us throughout our existence. Should we just man-up and take it? Or, should we embrace our wimpiness? Or, should we punch back?

I digress.

In a nutshell… The examples I cited above seem superficial, but are they really? "Are they" the impetus for a life thrown off course?

Did any negative words change the course of your life? Positive words?

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24 comments:

Shelly said...

What a great post. In all my years of teaching, I became all too aware of the power of words, especially the negative ones, and the impact they have on children. As a parent, I know how sometimes we make off hand remarks that don't really mean much, but as a teacher I saw first hand the imprints those remarks could leave, even years later.

joeh said...

Interesting post...gotta think a bit.


OK, yes, words have power and we need to be careful with them especailly around children. I would add that inflections and expressions have the ability to magnify words or shrink their power.

Repitition can also be a major factor. Ocassional teasing is probably ok, but it can be hurtful. I think if you know your child you should know what is too much, too harsh, or non-productive, but for sure when in doubt...play nice.

My grandson is very skilled for his age. When he makes anice catch I will give him a high five, but if he misses it I will let him know, "Dude that was easy, you're better than that, how can you miss that one." I think balance is important.

Almost as long an one of your comments!

Abby said...

Oooh, another gem, Anita!

I think as I've gotten *cough* older, and certainly since I've become a parent, I think more about what I say.

When I was growing up, my dad was (and still is) very chauvinistic. BUT, by the way he spoke to me and of me, I learned that he was speaking in general terms, and that his chauvinistic thoughts didn't apply to me. Looking back, it's a strange irony.

I think I've told my kids, "everyone thinks their kids are the best (looking, athlete, student...), I know I do!" That lets them know where I stand, but also lets them know I'm biased, so don't listen to me :)

Tabor said...

I was very thin growing up and one of my college roommate made fun of that a few times, it hurt. Now I am hardly thin and wish I could get back to that!! Egad, are we every happy with our bodies? I will try to remember to compliment all of the children in a group, as sometimes I forget.

Tabor said...

I have not a clue why my laptop cannot avoid typos!

Linda said...

I can relate to some of the unkind comments "Chicken legs," "Skinny", "Stupid", etc. The old saying "sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." can't be further from the truth! Words do hurt and have an impact on others and it is so important to be kind and to choose our words wisely. Thankfully I had some encouraging teachers and good friends, and a father who made me feel loved and important.

ShadowRun300 said...

As an ex-teacher, and a mom of four, (one of which is a 15 year old girl) I know the importance of words. I think a good balance of teasing and praising, and lots of advice on how to be a good person, is key.
I worry all the time, though, about saying that one thing that will leave an "indelible mark". I've had it happen to me too.

Margie said...

Great post, Anita.
I have that book, The Book Thief on my list of books to read.

I do believe that words can have a profound impact on us.
A very long time ago someone said something to me that was most unkind and I still remember those words today, I do not dwell on them but they hurt so badly, I do remember the words.

Positive words lift us up, if only we all could be positive to one another , the world would be a better place.


Jen said...

Words are powerful as adults, too. Even someone extremely confident will eventually become worn down from the negativity.

On her last visit, my sister told my daughter she was lucky she didn't get my lips, which could rival Angelina Jolie's. I like my lips. People spend good money to get lips like the ones God blessed me with. It still made me mad.

Linda Hensley said...

I have a sibling who spent years cataloging my faults. Yeah, it hurt and it messed up my self-image for a long time. Other people's words can skew what we see in the mirror. I hope your kids can appreciate they got a special mother :)

Ms. CrankyPants said...

How interesting! I have an older sister who loved to tease me. Like you describe, one time she was making fun of how I looked and my dad laughed. I still remember the insult and my dad's reaction so vividly. It wasn't *close* to the meanest thing she ever said to me; it was my dad's laughter that made it sting. To this day, I am aware of that physical flaw. (Although I have many others that bug me more, LOL.)

K.Nicole Williams said...

My eldest is very bright and we were accustomed to telling him he was smart. We didn't realize our middle son was internalizing that to mean that he wasn't smart. Also, people have remarked on how our middle son is very athletic, "all boy", etc. One night when we were getting ready for bed, our middle son said that our eldest was smart and he was strong. I was surprised by how he had categorized himself and his brother (he was only 3 at the time) and I told him that they were both strong and they were both smart. It's sad that sometimes people don't realize how the words they use are effecting the children that are hearing it.

Bryan Jones said...

I agree,Anita, that it is difficult to hit the optimal balance between affirmations (to build our kids' self-esteem) and allowing them to hear some criticism (to build resilience and humility). As you say, there is no parenting manual and one is never sure as a parent that you've struck the right balance.

Barb said...

I don't know what develops resilience, but I know that some people have it and some don't. I want my children and grandchildren (and all children) to have it! I was mentored a long time ago by a very wise man. He taught me to find something good even if a situation seemed deplorable so that I would be able interact with a positive approach. I don't think this is a Pollyanna attitude. It's helped me, and I also encourage my grandchildren to look for the good. But, sadly, we aren't always surrounded by those who have our best interests at heart. I remember riding in a car with a group of girls when I was in Jr High. The most popular was telling each girl what her best feature was. When she came to me, she thought for a VERY long time and then said that maybe I had good shoulders. I'm nearly 70, Anita, and think I have a good self-concept, but I still feel the shame of that off-hand remark.

Mage said...

I was bullied for my appearance, and I was almost friendless by HS because I was so behind.

My youngest G-daughter is being bullied, but daughter M took immediate action. She is white and very blond in an all Chicano school. Who would have thunk it.

Hilary said...

Oh yes, words do have impact and sadly it's the negative ones (and those perceived that way) which remain with us the longest.

If we give too much thought to needing to remember who might be listening in when we compliment one child, our complimentary words can lose their sincerity. I can remember my mother being hyper aware of feeling she needed to do things equally for my sister and me. By the time she had grandchildren, she continued the practice of gifting our kids with either identical gifts or as close to it as possible. The kids would never know what their cousins got so clearly it was still for my sister's and my benefit. It was a revelation to her when I told her that she did not need to feel obligated to also buy for my kids if she saw something she wanted to get for my sister's kids.

And it gave me the perspective of making sure my own kids didn't feel the expectation of something coming their way just because their sibling got something. Their own time would come. I know people who would make sure that all of their kids got something when celebrating one of their kids' birthdays. I think that's ludicrous.

Compliments/praise could easily follow that same sort of path. It's important that children know what we love about them, what we admire in them, what makes us proud. But it's not a one-off sort of situation. It needs to be an ongoing thing. We need to remember to compliment the positives (and not just for children) semi-regularly.

As for the negatives, I'm not sure what we can to do combat what our kids hear from other sources, since they seldom express what's going around in their heads as a result. All we can do is try to be aware of how we come across when speaking to our kidlets and others.

And here's one for you. I typically leave rather short, albeit sincere comments on most blogs. Yours is one of the very few that gets all these thoughts tumbling around in my head, which makes me want to converse at further length. That, my dear is a very rare thing. You're gifted at making people think and share. Thank you for that.

WordsPoeticallyWorth said...

Thank you. Love love, Andrew. Bye.

Arlee Bird said...

Words can have so much power over us. They stick in our minds and follow us around unlike a physical attack where the pain usually goes away pretty quickly.

The negative ones that come from home are typically the worst that shape us into who we are. Parents play a big role in helping their kids adjust to the cruelty of this world. We should never belittle our kids. The tiniest word said absently in passing can become something we carry with us throughout our lives.

Lee
An A to Z Co-Host
Tossing It Out

Simone said...

Yes!!! You pegged it Anita. Being a twin, I always heard, "skinny twinnies" or "ugly twin, pretty twin", "mean twin, nice twin". I heard comments about skinny legs and from my own mom who's reason she doesn't have pictures of my sis and I until we were 10 months old...."scrawny". Those words leave such a mark. At the church that I'm at now, there are so many young girls who I can tell are self conscious. Those are the ones that I hug and call, "Beautiful." I want them to hear those words and believe those words to be true. Thank you for always thinking of me. I'm praying I can be back more regularly. Take care my friend!

TexWisGirl said...

you make very good points. so often we are singled out for 'good' or 'bad' traits, and if heard often enough, they become part of us. there are times i wish my parents had been more encouraging of their kids, but i know they were not very demonstrative.

i'm betting you're a great parent. :) just being aware of their feelings is a good thing.

Helen Wong said...

Interesting post...gotta think a bit.
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Midlife Roadtripper said...

I can recall several time, vividly, when I said the wrong thing to a child of mine. My heart broke and still does when I recall the expressions on their faces. I don't know if they recall those incidents, but I certainly do. With shame.

I guess what others might have said to them I used as fodder for life lessons. To teach either how to and how not to treat people.

Hmmm - need to think about this more.

Rebecca S. said...

Hi Anita! I've been a bad blogger lately. I'm busy trying to finish the first draft of the novel I started in November. I'm getting there, though.
Anyway, words sure can be powerful. My dad called me 'Princess' until I was about twelve. I was quite boyish looking and got teased about it, so being called Princess, even though I knew darn well I was far from it, made me feel special and feminine. Yay Dad! And when my mom used to send me to the garden to cut some herbs or flowers I would bring them back and ask if my bundle was enough. She would always say it was 'perfect', which made me feel very accomplished. These things don't seem like much but they meant the world to me :)

Hilary said...

I could write a book right along with you on this one. Words do have an incredible amount of power and people throw them around so cavalierly. I have had many instances where people remark on the beauty of two of my daughters while the third is just standing there. In those instances, I definitely speak up and say, "They're all beautiful (or gorgeous or what have you)." I have read books that have said too much praise can be as detrimental as too little. Like many of your other commentators, you have to find the balance.