Teacher Tom has written a great post today about a 'magic word' he's found to use with children. It made me start thinking about the other side of the coin- the words that cause nothing but trouble, the words that I'd love to strike out of every parent and carer's vocabulary.
There are certain words that promote guilt and blame without giving any positive momentum at all. These are the words that aren't helpful to anyone. If you use them yourself, you're either being mean or judgmental to someone else (consciously or subconsciously), or you're beating yourself up, or you're setting yourself up for failure. If someone else uses them at you- and I do mean AT you, because they can be like a weapon- they're not going to stir you into action, they're just going to make you feel crushed or worthless.
The first word I'd love you to wipe is 'should'. I've voted 'should' as the most useless word in the English language, along with its twin sister 'shouldn't'. Tell me, please, what exactly is the purpose of this word other than to give out a guilt trip?
I should do the housework now.
I should play with my kids more.
I shouldn't eat any more chocolate.
I shouldn't yell at my kids.
I'm not saying any of those statements are necessarily untrue. But seriously, when you say these things to yourself, do they change your behaviour? Do they make you feel more positive about making different choices? Or do they just make you feel like a failure?
'Should' is such a negative concept- it implies you've already failed, or you're about to fail. It implies that you know better, but you're going to do it anyway, so you're actually pretty worthless.
WIPE THAT WORD FROM YOUR SELF-IMAGE, NOW.
Try these statements instead.
I can see the floor needs sweeping, but right now I'm choosing to do something that make me feel good about myself; I'm important too.
I don't really feel up to playing with the kids as much as I'd like to- I wonder why that is?
Hmm, I seem to be eating when I'm not actually hungry- but I know making a big issue out of it doesn't help- what else can I choose to do instead that I LOVE, that'll make me feel like I'm treating myself, without making me also feel unhealthy later?
When I yell at the kids they don't actually listen- maybe I can find a better way to communicate with them.
When I was a young woman I was always battling my body size, and I read a book by Suzy Orbach called 'Fat is a Feminist Issue'. It was considered pretty radical back then, and it certainly changed my thinking about lots of things. It mightn't have provided the whole solution to my body size issues, but it did teach me about 'should'- about choosing which judges to listen to (or not). When you use the word 'should', you're either electing yourself judge of someone else's life or you're allowing someone else's standards to judge your own life. Neither is particularly healthy or useful.
When someone else uses the 'S' word AT you- whether it's your mother-in-law or a parent at the school gate or your doctor- they're electing themselves judge of your life, and the first thing you need to consider is how you feel about that person.
Do you respect their actions and their views? If you don't, just ignore them and move on. (My method is usually to raise one eyebrow at them and pointedly change the subject.) Listening to the opinions of people you don't respect is completely pointless- you don't actually want to BE like them.
If you do respect them, I'd suggest that you might forgive them for letting the 'S' word escape from their lips- maybe they haven't thought about it. They probably didn't mean to be insensitive. They probably do it to themselves all the time, too.
If you can change your default reaction to 'should' from guilt to forgiveness, you are on a winner.
And what about the other useless words?
The other ones that bug me are 'never' and its twin brother 'always'. They also have a negative, judgmental ring to them, don't they? And mostly, they're not even accurate. I vote 'never/always' as the most misleading twins in the English language.
I loathe the silent, judgmental subtext that comes along with 'never/always'.
I never yell at my kids (because I'm infallible and I bet you aren't, you loser).
I always breastfeed my babies (because I'm the perfect earth mama and that's why I never have any difficulties).
'Always' and 'never' have absolutely no margin for error, and because of that, they're out of touch with real life. Real life is full of errors- we know that! That's probably why you're reading a parenting blog right now- to try to avoid or fix errors!
In real life, we probably will yell at our kids now and then, because we're human and we're not doped to the eyeballs on valium (hopefully). We'll regret it, and we may need to apologize, rather than pretending that we 'never' do it.
In real life, some women simply won't be able to breastfeed all or maybe any of their children, and people who run around throwing 'always' at them are just going to cause pain. That's not helpful. Sometimes when you throw out an 'always' or a 'never', you're inflicting pain without even realising it.
In real life, 'I try not to yell at my kids' and 'I really want to breastfeed my babies'. That's how it is. 'Never' and 'always' are fantasy words, promising a future that is actually very uncertain, refusing to acknowledge that life is full of unexpected situations and contexts where we may have to adjust our boundaries. 'Never' and 'always' don't make room for new knowledge, for learning, for human frailty.
I learnt to doubt 'never' and 'always' in an academic context; when you're writing essays, it's bad form to make sweeping generalisations, and that's what 'never/always' tend to introduce. 'Never' and 'always' are mathematical, exact, precise. That makes them really useless words, in any real life context. Life is not a generalisation. Life is a moveable feast.
It's an uncertain world, a world full of difficult choices and challenges, whether we're talking about guiding our children or about navigating it ourselves. Try not to make life harder for yourself by allowing useless words to beat you over the head with judgment, guilt and failure.