As a systemic family therapist, I’m all too aware of how the words of a parent can profoundly impact a child. Stories, phrases and sayings have multiple layers of meaning and impact how children see themselves for a lifetime. We call it “social constructivism.” It means we are shaped by the society and people around us. In family therapy, we see the individual in light of the family, culture and society in which they were shaped. In this light, things make sense that don’t make sense otherwise.
Tell me what your mom said and I’ll tell you…
As a therapist, I have observed first hand how simple sentences shape our children for a lifetime. Here are some things I’ve heard adults tell me their parents said to them:
“You’ll never be as good as your brother!” leaves a wound on a child for a lifetime. It may not be physical abuse, but it wounds the same way. The child believes they are of less value…worthless.
“You’re smart as a whip! You can do anything you put your mind to.” This child will find success based on a sense of her own capabilities and determination.
“What in the world were you thinking! I can’t believe you did this again!” This child will struggle with feelings of chronic failure and powerlessness.
Even sentences parents say in front of children can impact their identity significantly and cause them to believe things about themselves the parent doesn’t actually want them to believe:
“My boys are so lazy, if left to their own devices they’d just watch TV all day”
“My kids can’t keep their rooms clean to save their lives!”
Are we doomed to this fate? Do our parents words really get to tell us who we are forever?
Of course not. But without intentional evaluation of these influences, we are often affected in ways which we are not even aware. With a mindful parenting practice, we can grow toward greater awareness of how our words shape our kids.“Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall.” ― Jodi Picoult, Salem Falls
3 ways I make sense in light of my mom’s sayings:
I recall my mom telling me frequently to have fun. As a result I value fun and pleasurable activities more than I value safety. She said “have fun,” not “be careful.” This does not mean I jump at the chance to put my life in danger, but simply that I don’t struggle with anxiety. I know how to have a good time. The flip side is I can tend toward self-indulgence at times. At home we had to work before we could play so this balanced the “have fun” with ideals encouraging hard work and personal excellence. Additionally, one of my Meme’s phrases was, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.”
“Pretty is as Pretty does”
To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really understand what this phrase meant until I was into my teenage years. But I do now truly value inner beauty over outer beauty. Part of my job as a therapist is to find some kind beauty in every human and every situation. I once saw a sign in front of an older home that said, “I’m gorgeous inside” indicating the inside of the home had been remodeled. Ever since then I’ve made that one of my prayers and self-talk practices…to be more and more gorgeous on the inside and to recognize and value the “gorgeousness inside” over whatever doesn’t look like I wish it did! Outwardly we are wasting away, but inwardly we are being renewed day by day. Some of the most beautiful women I have known were in their 70s, 80s or 90s…the beauty in the eyes of a truly wise and peaceful woman can be breathtaking.
I believe this was my mother’s brilliant way of reminding herself to whom her children belonged. In this way, her joy and pride for us easily shifted to gratitude and her fears to faith. A devote woman of Christian faith, she believed it was her job to give us both “roots and wings.” She would often send us off with this gentle reminder of whose we were at bedtime, when dropping us off at summer camp or as we were going out on a date. She believed we belonged to God and we were a gift from God. She valued this identity for us more than she valued our own developing identity. Who we are is not different from for whom we live. I think this line of self-talk helped her as she transitioned into the “launching” or “empty nest” phase of parenting. She never had a possessive hold on us, we were not hers, we were God’s.
“Pleasant words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul, health to the bones.” Proverbs 16:24
In project momfulness, I spent two weeks “minding my words” as prescribed by Denise Roy. I paid specific attention to mindfully note the words and phrases I tend toward for two consecutive weeks. I strove to not only note the words, but also the tone and emotion transmitted in my words. This also added an increased awareness of what phrases I say to myself (some of which I wouldn’t say to my worst enemy). Here’s what I discovered about what I say:
What I say with the most emotion:
When my 7-year-old daughter decided she didn’t need to stay buckled while the car was moving I just about lost it and screamed “THAT IS NOT SAFE!” I jerked over to the side of the road as I let out a long piercing screech. This happened 3 different times in the 7 days I “minded my words.” Given what I wrote above about my tendency to not focus on safety, it is no surprise that my girl would do this. (I’m not “Captain Safety,” but I did marry him and for good reason I think!) The sad thing is I’m not sure how better I could have responded. I emotionally stressed an important life skill and that’s OK. The most ideal way to avoid situations like this is through prevention, which we HAVE done. The good news is that was over a month ago now and it hasn’t happened since–so my “Mama Drama” worked!
I hear myself say a lot: “Do you know that I love you?” They usually sigh and say, “Yes, Mom, you tell me all the time!” followed by another long sigh. I’m not sure this is a great phrase. In some ways it implies that some part of me believes they may not know that I truly love them OR that some part of me needs reassurance that I’m doing ok as a mom. I’m working on finding something else to say to communicate the true sentiment of the phrase: “You are special to me. I will always love you, no matter what happens. You are precious and irreplaceable and I’m so glad you are in my life.” I do sing them a song at bedtime with this sentiment that I from a CD from discovery toys…its called “I love you so much” by Barbara Milne. (Super cute clip of my daughter singing this song…I love you so much)
I love you so much. I love you so much. I can’t even tell you how much I love you. You’re special to me. You’re special to me. I’m happy to have you as part of my life. I love you. I love you. I love you.
What I say with the most aggravation:
When my kids don’t obey sometimes I threaten them with “M.O.M….Mean Ole Mom.” I say in a rather sarcastic and demeaning tone, “Do you want me to bring out Mean Mom? Because I can easily get her if you want me to. It’s your choice…do you want Mean Mom or do you want to obey?” Usually if they don’t respond I’ll just keep going…“She’s ready. Do you want her or do you want to obey and have nice mom?” They know this woman. She’s mean and she can be really unpleasant. I like to talk about her like she’s separate from me and I try to portray to them that its their choice if they want her based on their compliance. But it’s not kind and even if it is a little bit effective, it’s certainly less than ideal. It portrays a black and white persona of mom and the truth is sometimes I’m both..I’m gray.
What I’d rather say is next….“The 3 little words every Mom should know!”
What I say with the most intention:
A while back I came across 3 little words that have transformed my parenting completely for the better. It’s just 3 little words and I use them ALL the time. An article on Positive Parenting and a book series on Positive Disciple by Lynn Lott shares the power of these 3 words to ending nagging for good. When a child has asked a question and been answered, but then continues to ask the same question hoping for a different response, the recipe is “asked and answered.” I’ve had great success with this response. So much success in fact that little sister now loves to repeat “asked and answered‘ for me occasionally when big brother is repeatedly asking. And oh the attitude she puts with it is compelling.
After spending this time minding my words, I see that momfulness is not really about words at all. Words may matter the most in the long run, but momfulness is really about presence. It’s about margin…making space for what really matters and keeping those things that are not urgent and not important just that…not important and not urgent. It’s also about kindness. When we live in the present with intention and awareness of how our present words and actions impact the future, we not only give kindness to ourselves, but to those we love as well.
“When you remember me, it means you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.”
— Frederick Buechner
Arabian Proverb “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will make me go in a corner and cry by myself for hours.” Eric Idle (1943- present) Comedian Words can make a deeper scar than silence can heal.
Unknown “Words have a longer life than deeds”. Pindar (522 BC – 443 BC) Greek lyric poet “Perhaps you will forget tomorrow the kind words you say today, but the recipient may cherish them for a lifetime.”
Dale Carnegie (1888-1955) American Writer, Motivational Sales Trainer Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced by them for good or ill.
Buddha “Words, so innocent and powerless…when standing in a dictionary, how potent for good or evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.” Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) American Novelist “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Proverbs 12:18
I love this list of “Emotionally Nutritious Words” Submitted to Energy Parenting by Carole Boling, Creighton School District, Phoenix AZ
Tell the child that he or she is…
A good friend
A hard worker
A source of strength
A great example
Accomplishing a lot
Attentive to detail
Bringing out the best in others
Choosing what’s important
Dedicated to success
Easy to like
Feeling the joy of discovery
Flashing a contagious smile
Finding new in the ordinary
Going above and beyond
Having unique ideas
Having great curiosity
Handling strong emotions well
Having an open mind
Possessing innate ability
Just and Fair
Looking out for others
Managing his/her time well
Making a happy mood
Making a hard task look easy
Making great choices
Making an insightful inference
Making delightful deductions
Making a solid educated guess
Seeing the big picture
Sunshine to others
Strong on the inside
Using a pleasant voice
Using your great mind
Or that he or she has…
A quick mind
A pleasant manner
A fine sense of humor
A sense of beauty
An appreciation of art
A great sense of logic
A great ability to be