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The Power of the Offhand and Overheard

It is a given that adapting to the evolving needs of our children as they grow is a challenge! Parenting books seem to have an answer for everything except how we are supposed to keep up. The biggest hurdle for us is to realize just how much we need to learn and grow right alongside our children.

One of the pitfalls of parenting is becoming super mindful of what comes out of our mouths. I am not referring to the occasional f-bomb or disparaging remarks about your sister-in-law's questionable wardrobe choices (topics for another post). I am talking about the offhand comments we make about them to others in our children's presence. It may be obvious that we would not want to humiliate a child but it can be more subtle than openly criticizing them. Of course we have hopes and dreams for our children; but whether we reminisce on the past or project the future, we can lose sight of the most precious thing we do have - the opportunity to love and appreciate a unique human being, just as they are in the present. 

There is tremendous power in seemingly insignificant comments made by significant people in a child’s life, especially if repeated. How often have you heard adults say things like this in a child’s presence?

“I wish they could be that little again.”

“I hate that she’s growing up so fast.”

“I can’t wait until we are past this stage.”

“Ugh, teenagers!”

“I’m looking forward to this kid doing great things someday on the field/court.”

“Stop growing!” 

These sentiments can reflect unrealistic expectations of our child or idealized notions about childhood. Well -meaning as they may be, when we consider how these subtle messages are received by a child we see the potential impact of these seemingly innocuous statements.

*I had an uncle who, from as far back as I remember until he passed away in his late 70s, always greeted me with a big smile and, “It’s my favorite niece, Renee!” And you know what? I believed him. Even though I was always aware he greeted ALL his nieces the same way, those few words and the obvious pleasure he expressed made me feel special.

*On the other hand, I remember a friend sharing with me when I was about 12, that her mother had said that even though I was ‘nothing to look at now, someday I would be pretty’.

*A friend of mine I noticed always referred to his daughter's interests as 'little' whether directly speaking to her or to friends; your little softball practice, her little friends, etc., while his sons had games and buddies. Even the tone of voice was different. He adored his daughter but there was a message.

Most of us can recall an offhand comment by an adult that colored our sense of self - for better or worse. Couple that with understanding that very young children take what we say literally and we can never overestimate the power of our teasing or our words of appreciation again.

For most of us, parenting requires (and fortunately nature helps provide) newfound empathy, a realization that it is not about us; not our memories nor our aspirations for our children. We are here to nurture, encourage and protect while respecting their individuality; to give them the tools and information to succeed, to be courageous, and make healthy choices for themselves. We help them be their best self when we appreciate them, not for what they did in the past or what we envision for their future, not for how well they fit our needs, not for their beauty, accomplishments, or the reflected praise we receive for either. We help them realize their full potential by standing with them as they face the challenges and opportunities of the present; when we truly appreciate the whole person they are right now. 

My husband is fond of saying to new parents, “Don’t blink”. The passage of time and the miraculous process of maturing from infant to adulthood passes so quickly (especially in hindsight). We often feel more comfortable with our child’s previous age and stage, primarily because we were finally beginning to feel competent to understand it, manage our own feelings around it, and to meet their needs - when suddenly we see the familiar ground slipping from under us. Wanting to feel equipped to deal with, well, life, is a basic human need. We as parents are no exception. Parenting is a little like learning to dance on a

wet kitchen floor. We kind of have to get used to falling on our keesters once in a while.

The good news is we have everything we need to learn and grow right alongside our children. It is also perfectly normal to grieve a little for those times we have loved so well, the baby snuggles, the unabashed adoration of us in the preschool years, the explosion of intellectual and physical skills of the school years, and the independence and creative exuberance of adolescence. I think it is important that we acknowledge our discomfort to ourselves, our partners and others who share the angst of those transitions, without letting it diminish our appreciation for where our child is right now. 

Awareness of how our words, spoken in private or where a child can overhear may even eventually color our attitude toward them. Ascribing a trait to a child repeatedly actually increases we notice that trait to the exclusion of others. Even when we think it's a good thing, it can backfire. Research shows for example that when a child is constantly told they are 'smart' when they have succeeded at a task immediately, it undermines the likelihood they will persevere at a difficult task. [Praise for intelligence can undermine children's motivation and performance - PubMed (] We can all try to be more mindful of how the words we say affect others and how a subtle change in wording can influence expectations. But realizing how profoundly comments made in our child’s presence may affect them is critical. Regardless of our intent, we can imagine how these messages land in children’s hearts. 

How might, “You were so cute when you were little” settle into the mind of a 13 year old struggling with body image?

How might, “That’s my boy! He’s got that will to dominate out there”, or “We’ve got college scout material right here!” be received by a 17 year old worried that his glory days on the field were perhaps his last shining moment in your eyes or speak to his deep desire to be a good husband, father and entrepreneur?

What message does a toddler internalize when they hear over and over how exasperated we are with them simply trying to communicate and manage emotions when their brains aren’t even fully developed yet?

We all make comments or share information about our children with friends and family that sometime is more about our needing affirmation and support from friends, sometimes at our children’s expense. We may think we are just finding humor in the challenges of wherever we happen to be in our parenting journey, sharing a common struggle with other parents, or even inspiring our child to be more aware of the future or our confidence in them. We adults sometimes forget the power of our words for little ones who look to us with unconditional love. How might our child receive a different message if we turn the focus from our feelings to their perspective?

"I know it's hard not to throw things when you are frustrated. Sometimes I want to yell when I am tired and frustrated too. We can use our breath to get calm and do better together. I always love you."

“I see you have grown a lot taller in the last year. I remember feeling awkward when I went through a growth spurt at your age, but you seem to be growing stronger and managing it gracefully. Are there things you find are harder or that you are enjoying more now?”

“I used to really like our snuggles, just relaxing together. I know you’d rather I didn’t give you butterfly kisses in front of your friends. What is your favorite way for me to show you I think you’re one of my favorite humans now that you are older?”

“You showed some real skill on the field today. You seemed to truly be enjoying yourself and it was a pleasure watching you. Do you have any thoughts about pursuing this further?”

When we consider the impact of our words within the framework of our child’s reliance on us to be their mooring place in any storm, we can be their ‘one true thing’. We can simultaneously acknowledge our own vulnerability and growth as adults, while celebrating the uncharted territory our child is navigating every day of their lives. It is the acknowledgment and acceptance of where they are in the present that your child perceives in everyday interactions with you that will strengthen them and solidify a relationship of warmth, trust and respect.

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