Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Past Deadline: Speaking of Bossy McBossyPants

The mouth is a powerful weapon. Sometimes it emits very loud things, such as shrieking. Sometimes it’s mid-range, such as whining. Other times it’s only a whisper of complaint. No matter what the decibel level, sometimes it’s hard to take back the words that come out.

One day recently Girlchild was stalling about going to school. She occasionally comes up with a litany of reasons why she shouldn’t go. Usually it’s related to some feigned illness – a tactic she has undoubtedly learned from her older brother. On this day, however, she pouted and told me it was my fault.

See, she had a birthday party back in the fall and we invited several little girls from her class. It was her first big event with a large number of her peers – girls – and she was very excited. She had a blast. At one point, though, she was ordering everyone around, telling them how they should dance to the music, and they were meekly following her. I piped up and asked the girls, “Is she always this bossy at school?” They shook their heads no, ever loyal to their queen.

At some point during the party, however, I apparently called her “Bossy McBossyPants.” I don’t remember saying this – at least not at the party. I know I’ve used the term before when she tries to order people around at home.

She remembers, though, and it embarrassed her. It hurt her feelings enough that she dredged up the memory as an excuse to avoid school one day more than six months later. (It didn’t work.)

It makes you think, however, about the things we say to our kids and how they are remembered or interpreted.

I used to have occasional sleepovers at my grandparents’ house when I was a kid. I remember asking for an apple as a bedtime snack one time, but they said an apple was too heavy before bed and it would give me bad dreams. I believed that for years – even when an apple would have been a better choice than, say, a slice of pizza. The words stuck.

Sometimes as parents we grasp at reasons for things and blurt stuff without thinking. One time a few years ago we were packing up to leave a lakeside place we were visiting with friends and the kids were frolicking with abandon – reluctant to go home. “C’mon, you guys,” Groom-boy hollered. “When it gets dark at this place the monsters come out.”

“Are you nuts!?” I hissed, imagining the ensuing nightmares and late-night awakenings that would follow. Fortunately that particular blurt didn’t seem to stick.

I think we forget how powerful our words can be with our kids, although it’s understandable since so many of our words are ignored, especially anything that includes “stop,” “come” or “no.” Kids feel things just as deeply as we do. As I learn more about what my kids retain and how they respond to and remember some of the dumb things I say, it helps put a lot of broader communication issues into perspective.

It’s hard, sometimes, to be understanding when someone says something nasty or mean. I bet we’ve all been givers and receivers on this front. I was harsh with a poor fellow on the telephone when ordering food one day not long ago. How was he to know I was on my very last nerve due to a long, tiring day when he had the gall to ask the probing question: “Can you tell me what the coupon says?” (Sorry about that.)

And it’s not always easy to bite one’s tongue and put oneself in the other person’s shoes (or whatever other tired cliché you want to throw in there), when you are at the receiving end of a sharp tone, but it definitely helps to depersonalize it. There’s always a reason for something – even if it’s not a very good one.

Kids, though, even bossy ones, aren’t usually equipped to depersonalize thing. That’s why, with kids especially, one has to make sure the brain has caught up with the mouth before one utters something stupid.

As much as we would like them to, spoken words don’t always just float away into the clouds. Ask any politician.

Published in The Perth Courier, June 3/10

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