We Don’t Mean To But We Do: What Parents Say and What Children Hear
Fifty years ago, my parents and I were at my grandparents’ home on the New Jersey shore, near the golf club. My grandparent’s house was made of stone, with many rooms mysterious to my ten year old mind, including a “music” room with instruments on its walls. We were in the den that had giant gumdrops in candy dishes with perilously heavy covers.
I sat next to my grandfather who held court from his chair and ottoman in the corner. He had pale blue eyes, a warm smile, an easy laugh, and a deep tan. An oilman from Tulsa and Wichita, he’d come to the East Coast at an early age to enjoy his fortune. I was his “prodigy” who read history books and could delight him by what I knew. I called him “Ganky.” He was to me both mythical and familiar.
I had just answered a question, perhaps about a war or a treaty, when my grandmother asked if I wanted to go in to politics. “Yes,” I said, “I want to be an ambassador.”
My answer was designed to impress everyone, especially my grandfather. An ambassador was an important and dignified figure, deciding questions of war and peace, dressed in a uniform with medals. I waited for the praise. Instead, my grandmother scoffed. “An ambassador! That’s not important at all. If you’re going to be a diplomat, you should be Secretary of State or nothing.”
I looked to my grandfather. He looked away. That’s when my blush rose. 1
A comment that can seem trivial or innocuous to a parent can lodge itself permanently in a child’s memory. And it’s the negative comments that almost always leave a lasting impression. As an adult, it's a scary prospect not knowing which comments will be quickly forgotten and which will persist. Caution is possible, perfection is not.
Circa 2005, I was in our bedroom when my seventeen year old daughter Lauren came through the open door. I was reading something, and I remember not putting it down.
“Dad, will Andrew do better than me on the SAT?”
She was due to take the test soon. Her brother Andrew was two grades behind her.
I didn’t hesitate. “Yes, I think he will.”
Lauren stormed out, long brown hair flying, ran down the hall to the bathroom, and locked the door behind her. She was crying. I banged on the door, pleading for the chance to make amends. Lauren and I have many things in common, including our inability to tolerate someone being upset with us. So she quickly put me out of my parental misery and allowed me to give her a hug of apology.
I have no defense, only context. Lauren had always been a better student than she was a standardized test taker––multiple choice tests bored her––while her brother Andrew thrived on the gamesmanship. 2
This happened about a dozen years ago, when my children were 18, 21, and 23. Friends and family were around a large table in our apartment to celebrate a Jewish holiday over dinner. Holidays are a time when I drink scotch, because it loosens my spirit.
The three kids were all there, and one of them instigated the question of who our favorite child was. My wife and I were pleased to hear each of the three children make impassioned cases for one of their siblings as the favorite. A parental victory. But then my daughter Lauren accused us of hiding our true feelings. And, worse, being boring and smug about it.
Her accusation of “boring” set me off on a train of thought, accelerated by the scotch. I was ready to pontificate.
“Each of you,” I said, “ has come to me asking which child I consider the most intelligent. Now, finally, you’re old enough to handle the truth.”
My wife’s legs were too far away to kick me under the table. I’d have ignored it anyway. I held in my sway the irresistible attention of three expectant faces.
“Lauren, you are the most emotionally intelligent. Andrew, you are the most logically intelligent. Michael, you are the most creatively intelligent.” I sat back, as proud as the Wizard of Oz must have been when he handed out brains, heart, and courage, to the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion.
Of course my children immediately began, and will never ever stop, teasing me about what I said. Their mockery was merciless, exaggerating the types of intellect I bestowed upon them.
Lauren, with her high EQ, speaks only in a sixties, “hippy, dippy,” patter, constantly asking “how does that make you feel?” Andrew, the logical one, speaks only using “0’s” and “1’s,” i.e., in binary code. Creative Michael uses hand signals to show how he’s looking at an issue from every possible angle.
Laughter reigned around the table, including me at myself.
The idea for this post was sparked by a recent essay bythat made a big impression on me. His essay was part of an excellent multi-writer series on fatherhood I highly recommend. 3
As a 12 year old, Lyle was playing Little League and struck out. Baseball was Lyle’s most important thing, and he was good at it. But even the best players strike out.
As Lyle headed to the dugout, his father called out from the stands in a tone of exasperation, “C’mon Lyle.” That offhand comment made Lyle feel a sense of shame that he suppressed, and so it stayed with him for decades.
It’s a sense of shame that wounds a child the most. And shame comes when a child is rebuked in front of an audience about something important to the child’s self-esteem. And the rebuke is left to fester.
I suppose when we mess up as parents the best we can hope for is to acknowledge our inevitable goofs and make fun of ourselves for being eminently fallible. But first we need to realize our error, and that comes from our child’s reaction. So we need to give our children a feeling of freedom to express their displeasure when we’ve said something hurtful.
Turning the tables, our children can say awful things to us with the sole object of inflicting the most pain, e.g., “I hate you.” It’s tempting to scold them for being “fresh.” To escalate the confrontation. But instead you could take it in stride, engage with them, or say something benign like “You’re entitled to your opinion.” The point is to keep the channels of communication open so they feel comfortable expressing themselves.
My experience is that children’s instinct to wound starts early. I denied some treat to my younger son Michael, aged eight. His reaction was to call me the “worst father in the world.” My reply was this. “There must be two billion fathers in the world. Do you realize how impressive it is to be the worst of two billion?”
I went on to invent a Global awards ceremony of Worst Father of the Year with past winners who had denied their children ridiculously elaborate treats. Soon we were both laughing.
At the end of a Disneyworld vacation, we asked eight year old Lauren to name her favorite attraction. She said, “The I hate my family ride.” We have that one on tape.
Question for the Comments
Please share a story, either from your perspective as a child or a parent, of a comment that proved to be unusually memorable.
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I later understood the comment was motivated by high, if not unrealistic, expectations. I felt those expectations from my grandfather, especially. My grandfather died in 1992; I was thirty. After his funeral, an older man came up to me and offered condolences. I remember saying, “I have big shoes to fill.” The man looked at me sternly and said something to the effect of “No you don’t. Just be your own person.”
In grade school, Lauren was given a standardized test, and her results alarmed her teachers. She did fine on every section, except one where she was near the bottom percentile. It turned out she’d decided to ignore that section’s questions and instead fill in the little circle answers according to a “pretty” pattern she’d devised.