We all remember how our parents words impacted us. We can recite the words verbatim that scarred us the most deeply. For example, I remember when I told my mother I wanted to become a writer. She knew I liked to read novels and enjoyed creative writing, so she correctly assumed I wanted to write novels. She said, “Only really good writers can make a living writing novels.” As you can imagine, while those were the words she said, the words I heard were, “You aren’t a good enough writer to make a living writing novels.” She went on to advise me to find a way to make a living as a writer. I became a journalist and a nonfiction book editor.
Now I’m a parent. I’m usually pretty careful about what I say to my children, but sometime I lose my temper and say things I regret. And sometimes, even when I’m not really angry, I say something that I just know leaves a scar on my children. For instance, the other night I was speaking with my son. I started to get a little irritated, because he didn’t want to take my advice about how to better manage his time and make sure he remembered all his commitments. So I said, “That’s why you fail at things.”
He…not surprisingly for a 15-year-old…replied, “So, you’re saying I’m a failure?”
“No,” I said emphatically. “I’m saying that sometimes you fail at things or don’t do as well at them, because you won’t employ techniques that will help you succeed.”
“So, your saying I’m a failure,” he repeated. No matter how long or hard we argued this point, he still heard different words than I had said and took away a different meaning than I had intended. I knew I had scarred him in that moment.
I was sure of it later when he de-friended me on Facebook and I later learned he had posted in his Facebook status that his mother said he was a failure. Confirmation.
So, how do we counteract the impact our words have on our children? It’s easy to say, “Just watch your words, then you won’t have to worry about the impact your words have,” and that would be true in a perfect world. We don’t live in a perfect world, though, and sometimes, no matter how careful we are, our words impact our children negatively.
In this instance, I not only went to my son later and said something to him again, but I also wrote him a note on Facebook (his preferred mode of communication). He must have “heard me” there, because he befriended me again. I will also negate my words by often pointing out his successes.
As I lay in bed the other night, however, thinking about this incident, I was reminded of the Jewish stress on how we use words. We are told that words have enormous power. Indeed, each letter has a creative energy of its own. Combined with other letters, words wield their own energy. And once our words go out into the world, we can’t get them back. Their creative ability continues creating–negatively or positively–whether we like it or not. That’s why we are told to not to speak of others. Lashon hara, the evil tongue, represents a sin and includes not only idle gossip but also speaking well of others. We simply are not to speak about others, because we never know when our words might come back to haunt us. Indeed, once I spoke highly of a friend who had raised all the money for her wedding. Her parents were not going to help at all. I thought it quite commendable that she was able to pay for her own wedding. She heard about this conversation and took my comments the wrong way. We’ve never been friends since.
But when we don’t mean to do lashon hara…when our words are misconstrued into something evil…we have not sinned. Our children may come back and tell us we have, but as parents I think we must absolve ourselves. We must apologize in the moment, know we are doing the best we can, and go on…but go on aware of the scar our children bear because of us. Bear responsibility not blame. There’s a difference.
Words…such powerful things. God spoke the world into being using words. They have the ability to create, thus we must be careful what we create when we open our mouths and speak. Unfortunately, once we’ve spoken we can’t uncreate what we’ve said. I’m not the first parent to wish I could make those words go back to their source as if they never existed. That can’t happen.
I’m reminded of the children’s saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Funny, more kids end up in a therapist’s chair as adults due to the words spoken to them by their parents (or others) than because of any sticks or stones thrown at them. (Well, I suppose there are a lot of physically abused children in those chairs as well.) It seems to me that words hurt more than almost anything else…or at least the pain goes deeper and the scar takes longer to fade.