Sticks and Stones: Are You Unintentionally Driving Your Child Away?

So I was sitting in my office surfing the web, uh, I mean, working, when a voice on the street in front of my house attracted my attention. Being the nosy and ever vigilant I-work-from-home-so-I-know-everything-that-happens-around-here sort of busybody, I jumped right to the window to preserve my know-it-all status.

Two boys, from the size of them probably in ninth or tenth grade, were sitting on their bikes in the middle of the street talking to a woman in a red minivan.

At first I thought, oh, how sweet, they are giving her directions! And then her voice rang out strong and clear. She pointed her finger at the taller one. (Ever notice how uncomfortable it is to be pointed at? It’s like the finger is a ray gun, and directs all that icky stuff right at you in a powerful stream.)

Anyway, up into my window comes her voice. AND YOU! YOU GET YOURSELF HOME RIGHT THIS MINUTE AND CLEAN UP THAT ROOM!! IT’S A PIGSTY, YOU LAZY A–.

And then she sped away. He shouted out MOM! and tapped on the side window of the van as it left, but she zoomed ahead without looking back.

Sheepishly, with hunched shoulders and downcast eyes, he and his buddy turned their bikes towards home. I felt so keenly his embarrassment at being humiliated in front of his friend. I couldn’t hear what else he said, but I did hear him repeat the words that broke my heart, and surprisingly, not with anger in his voice, but with sadness.

Lazy a–

Now, I don’t know what kind of day she just had. Maybe her boss called her names. Maybe the baby is sick and she’s worried. And as little as a few months ago, I would have been much more compassionate about trying to figure out how much pain must be inside a person to lead them to do something so nasty.

But lately, my take on life’s been getting real simple. It doesn’t matter what kind of day she had. Nothing can possibly justify the way she just spoke to her child.

We all have bad days. We all experience pain, and at times revert to repeating unconscious behaviors. That’s part of being human. But there’s more available to us in our human packages. There are things we can do, decisions we can make, standards we can set for our own behavior.

And I propose that one of those standards for parents should be that under no circumstances will we allow ourselves to degrade and belittle our children by calling them names.

I want to leave the legacy of clear and effective communication to the next generation. I want them to inherit a world where people have the skills to communicate their feelings and needs, and make requests, without belittling others. If they can’t inherit that world, then I at least hope they can inherit the tools and wisdom to create it.

And I’m so disappointed to be reminded that all over the country, children tonight will be told in no uncertain terms who they are. Lazy, stupid, cruel, insensitive, incapable. The list goes on and on.

Here’s my proposal. (yeah, I know, I’m preaching to the choir. But you guys are here in front of me. I hope you take this message and spread it in your own way out into the world.)

Let’s take a collective vow not to pass this toxic garbage on to our kids. If you have a bad day, that’s a real shame, and I’m sorry. Let it die out with you. Don’t dump it on your spouse or your kids or your dog. Clear it out of your body with physical activity, writing, screaming, or venting to a willing listener, not just whoever is unfortunate enough to get in your way.

If you cannot resist the temptation to tell your child who he is, then please, tell him good things! This will require a Herculean effort to pause before speaking and check your intention. Is what you are about to say meant to uplift your child? Good. Go for it. Is it meant to control, manipulate, or purge your anger? Zip your lip.

Go away. Don’t say it.

Simple, but not easy. And no single effort will pay off more in your relationship with your child. Or others of significance in your life, for that matter.

Need more convincing? How much longer will that lanky teenage boy tolerate that kind of treatment from his mother? When will he deliver her garbage back to her? Want to bet he’s counting the days until he’s old enough to move away from her and not look back? And how will he treat her if someday she’s dependent upon him for eldercare?

It’s said that how you do one thing is how you do everything. So how you talk to your child might be how you are talking to yourself, your coworkers, and your spouse. You all deserve better. Stop. Separate the behavior from the person. State your needs and make a request for a change. Take appropriate action, which is always about you, and never about them.

I can’t find that woman out there and tell her what is happening to her relationship with her precious child. Even if I could, there’s no guarantee that this information would lead to a change in her behavior or choices. All I can do is tell you about this, and hope that both you and I can use this bird’s eye view to strengthen our resolve to be the kind of parents who know and do better than that.

Copyright Karen Alonge 2005