Picture this scenario. Kid A teases Kid B in an off the cuff, flippant manner. Kid B, who has been having a hard day to start with, bites Kid A’s head off. For reasons Kid A can’t even begin to understand, what started as joke has ended with hurt feelings and a complete disconnect between friends.
Sound familiar? I’m guessing it does. Words have a habit of getting in people’s way when they haven’t been used properly or with some modicum of thought. This is a lesson that we’ve been trying to teach our kids for quite a while and in several various ways through their two-steps-forward-one-step-back path to growing up. And, in turn, we have to remind ourselves along the way, too. All in all, it comes down to these two questions.
What can you control when it comes to the words that you use? What is out of your control?
This is what’s on you, kids…
Speak with integrity.
In other words, mean what you say and say what you mean. Have the actions and the character to back up the words that you speak. Make it so that when you say something, the person who receives your words believes that they came from you. Be it in a face-to-face conversation or in an online setting, it is never good when someone has to question your intent, motivation, or truthfulness.
Know your audience.
Who are you speaking to? Are they your peer or an authority figure? Is it mixed company or only your own gender? Most of us realize that we wouldn’t speak to our grandmothers the way we would to our girlfriends. While the subject matter could easily cross over, the language we would use would be different. But this doesn’t come naturally to our children and it’s a lesson that needs to be taught by word and by example.
My husband does a great job of this for our boys. He shows them that speaking in front of me and their sisters is different than when it’s just them. The boys, in turn, have learned that certain language and subject matter that is completely off the table with us girls around is acceptable when it’s only the fellas.
This lesson has nothing to do with one way of speaking being better than another. Knowing your audience shows that you know and respect who you are addressing.
Watch your tone and use your words.
If you’re happy, be happy. If you’re sad, be sad. Frustrated? Silly? Sarcastic? Angry? Emotional? Loving? We can all be any of those things. But think of it this way.
Say the sentence, “I’ve had enough.” Now say it in the manner of each of those feelings I listed above. Do you hear the difference? Even if you can’t, it’s likely that whoever you are talking to can. (Unless you’re on social media. Then God help you, because emojis only go so far.)
And for goodness’ sake. Remember what I’ve told you. Only people who aren’t very smart and have bad vocabularies need to curse all the time. Use your brains and be creative. Nobody needs to use four-letter-words in every conversation.
There’s a time and a place for that.
Potty talk doesn’t belong at the dinner table, right? We start teaching this to our kids when they are tiny! But it can be expanded into so many different areas. Sometimes, it’s an issue of privacy (example: Yes, sweetie, your brother can know you wear a bra, but he doesn’t need to be around while I explain sizing and fit, OK?). Sometimes, it’s an issue of timing (example: Yes, son, I would love to talk about how awful you think your algebra teacher is, but not while we’re still standing in church after Mass.)
This can be a hard lesson for us to teach and even harder for kids to remember in today’s world of constant and instant access. Facebook always wants to know What’s on your mind? in that status box. Snapchat gets mad at you if you don’t respond to someone’s message nearly instantaneously. Instagram wants you to not only tell people what you’re doing, but show them, too! And Twitter wants you to do it all in a limited number of characters.
If we can get our kids to remember to check themselves and their surroundings before they open their mouths to speak, maybe they’ll get the idea that they need to do the same thing before they set their fingers to the keyboard.
And this is what you can’t control.
You can’t control anyone but yourself.
Period. End of lesson.
OK, not really. What does that mean, though? You can’t control anyone but yourself.
Well, it means you can’t control the day someone has had. You can’t control how they will receive what you say. You can’t control their background with the subject matter you are discussing or the preconceived notions they may already carry. Etc, etc, etc.
For example, one evening a few weeks ago, my husband, son and I were all watching a baseball game together. It had been a long day and I had received some unkind feedback from a post I had published. Greg, however, didn’t know that. There was no way he could’ve guessed how hurt my feelings had been since I had been putting on a good face in front of the kids and he hadn’t been home from work very long. Well, during the game, the announcer made a comment that reminded me of a funny story with my dad from when I was a kid. I started to tell the story to our son, but before I could get more than about 4 words out, Greg interrupted me by laughing and saying, “Oh boy. Here we go again.”
Let’s just say I shut up right quick. And he was completely gobsmacked.
He couldn’t understand why I hadn’t just laughed him off or told him to be quiet while I told the story to our son. Later on, when I explained, he was very apologetic and felt badly for hurting me. Of course, I forgave him. We even pointed out to each other how this was exactly the lesson we’ve been trying to teach the kids, but that sometimes we need a reminder for ourselves.
See, he knew his audience. His tone was joking and not at all disrespectful. It was, by all accounts, the right time and place for a little bit of teasing. He had it all under control. Until he didn’t.
Long story short, kiddos…
All of these ideas, these lessons that we continue (and continue and continue) to try to pass on to our kids, can be summed up like this:
You can only control what comes out of your mouth, not how someone else will react to it. Be prepared for the consequences.
Ideally, these lessons will become deeply ingrained in their brains by the time we have to launch them out into the world. They’ll become so second nature that the majority of misunderstandings, general awkwardness, or more disastrous consequences can be avoided. And if negative consequences can’t be avoided, then our kids need to know how to work through them with maturity and care.
But that’s all part of growing up, isn’t it? And growing up is never a straightforward process.