A Legacy of Words: Talking to [and About] Your Children

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Words are our legacy. No matter who you are, people will remember you by the things you have said. I am reading a novel right now—Looking for Alaska by John Green. The main character has memorized the last words of famous people. If words had no import, no one would take the time to catalog what people’s last words were. If words were fleeting things, no one would be able to recall exactly the insult you gave them on the exact date as an adolescent.

Words stick to us. They stay with us. They can live inside us happily or unhappily. Sometimes they make monsters of us. On occasion, they make us better people. But overall, words are a powerful, powerful legacy. And we need to handle them gingerly and use them with great care.

I’ve written about the impact words can have before. And, I’ve written about having a daughter before. But now that my own daughter is actually using words, I am thinking more and more and more about the words I use around her.

This all started when I came across the image below. Since I had always secretly hated calling little girls (or grown women) princesses, I was in full agreement with this one. Little girls need to be told they are strong, capable, bright and well, awesome. But don’t we all?

princess clip art

(Answer: yes. But take a minute to think. What do you remember more vividly—the last time you were complimented on your appearance or the last time you were complimented on your abilities? If your answer is the latter, then you are in great shape. And chances are, your parents used words that complimented your actions more than your appearance.)

Me, not so much.

My mother sang a song to me when I was a baby. “Bridgette Holmes, my Bridgette Holmes, pretty pretty Bridgette Holmes.” And still, I think about that song with ballooning nostalgia. The way my mother sang, the sweetness of the made-up song just for me—and the message. I was pretty.

Having suffered through a chubby phase and your basic, run of the mill teasing when I was in sixth grade, I could not help but be focused on the messages I received about my appearance. I have never, until now, linked the feelings I had about myself to the words that were used around me. I noticed the ways that I was different from my peers. But, the slippery slope came when you realized adults noticed it too.

But before I make the blanket statement that my sweet little mother messed me up by calling me pretty, let me tell you a story about her childhood. A childhood that was not full of roses, devoid of praise and bereft of any really attachment as a family. My mother was left at age four by her mother. I can’t imagine what it would be like knowing your mother left you and then learning to get along without her. My mother was shy, quiet and was very aware of the labels that were passed out in her family. My aunt was the funny one, my uncle was the smart one and she was the hard worker. She vividly remembers overhearing her father say what a hard worker she was and she has carried this with her through her entire life. At 71, my mother works 40 hours a week and maintains a 3 bedroom house, yard and pool all on her own. Anyone that knows her would say that she is one of the hardest working people they know.

If I asked my mother what her parents thought of her, this is what she would say. And while it is indeed positive and motivated her to do good things, think about what other words my grandparents could have used that could have impacted her even more. The legacy of those words could have led her somewhere completely different. Words are just that powerful.

So, when I started snapping pictures of Celia on Instagram and wanted to give her her own original hashtag (the true demonstration of Mommy vanity), I chose #prettycelia— for obvious reasons. I mean, my little Celia, is, well, so adorable!

And then this article threw me for a loop. Do I say pretty too often when talking about her hair, her clothes, her eyes, her painted nails? Have I already begun to define her thoughts of herself?

And this isn’t a girl-centric thing, in my opinion. Parker recently informed me that he was handsome, not cute and Celia was pretty. He said boys are handsome and girls are pretty. He frequently describes things as beautiful—our Christmas tree, horses, his aunt’s newly painted house. At three, he already clearly understands what beauty is . While it should be something simple every child learns, it makes me wonder—have I already said too much about the way things and people look around him? Have I described his sister as pretty, his father as handsome instead of emphasizing the other fantastic qualities that we have?

And this is not unlike when I wrote about Parker playing soccer. In reading this article, I saw that the way we talk about what they do is almost as important as being there and seeing it. Our response to them is so often communicated strictly with the words we choose. No pressure Moms and Dads.

This brought me back to the first piece of parenting advice I remember reading when Parker was just a baby. “Praise the action, not the child.” Instead of, “you’re so smart” you say, “wow, you know a lot of facts about animals.” Instead of, “you are a good boy” you say, “you really had good behavior all day.” And, although this article didn’t state this, I would expect that instead of saying, “You’re so pretty,” you might opt for, “I love the way you look in that blue dress.”

But for a Mom like me, who looks for positive reinforcement all too often in my marriage, parenting and career, this is a difficult shift to make.

So that leads me to this. As parents, we are the first people to both intentionally and unintentionally label our children. We all can recount the titles we were given in our families, in our peer groups or even in the workplace. If these labels are positive, we tend to rise to the occasion and make sure we fulfill expectations. This can be a good kind of pressure in some cases. However, sometimes it can really go awry. Fulfilling the label of smart, pretty, thin or funny might work well for some people— but over the course of your life might ignite unnecessary pressure. After all, these are words that become labels. Labels that are hard to always live up to. Labels that are hard to remove at will. Labels that could, in many cases, limit the children we give them to.

So, in talking to children, I am making a conscious effort to do the following: praise them on their actions, the words they choose and the behavior I see. Or, rather, stifle the need to praise them at all. Ask them about their day, their favorite color, their favorite super hero. Engage them. Learn from them. Listen to them. They have a lot to talk about. We have a lot of listening we need to do.

As adults, we know that if someone stood there and said how beautiful or brilliant or physically fit we were upon meeting us, it would seem a little awkward and shallow (but I would enjoy it, okay, I’ll admit it:). With children, it should be no different. Your words should neither define nor demand a certain quality of a child—be it beauty, intelligence or even just “good”-ness. Your real feeling about them should be communicated in how you react to what they think about themselves. Because what they think about themselves should be born inside them and should never be hinged on the words that come out of our mouths.

12 Days: Finding the Light

IMG_1496“Birds don’t sing because they have the answer, they sing because they have a song.”

-Maya Angelou

Words. While words can heal us, help us and hold us in times of crises, words also can hurt us, harm us and hinder us from moving forward. A lot of words are being thrown around after Friday’s tragedies. A lot. And not all of them as sensitive as we would like.

On Friday, I decided to take a short respite from social media. What I was seeing on Twitter and Facebook was in some ways comforting (reminders to hug my kids) but mostly it just made the knot in my stomach (criticism of gun control, mental health, etc.) There are children who won’t have a Christmas. Moms and Dads that will not have their entire family with them Christmas morning. Words won’t change that, no matter what your politics are.

But words are what make up prayers, letters, songs, thoughts, memories and conversations with our children. Words are what teach, guide, help and plan our future. Words are what we use to connect with each other.

And, although I don’t know much, I am pretty sure that the person who did this did not feel that words would guide him or help him. Words did not bring him solace. Words did not help him to connect to others.

So, I have seen that people are using the time to make connections to others in an effort to honor the lives of the people we lost. Instead of getting on a political soapbox or criticizing safety in schools, think about the little people who are still forming in those classrooms in Connecticut or New York or Texas or Arkansas. There are tons of other little people who need to see that we are able to honor what is good in people. We can do this while using it as an outlet for our grief and sadness. And with that, keep the good— the good words, the good spirit, the good ways of a person as a prominent force in our lives.

Some Examples:

  • Two local teenagers were killed in a car accident recently. Many schools around the area made an effort to “go green” (wear green in honor of the school the two kids attended) in the weeks following the tragedy. Students in our school made key chains showing the athletic numbers of the two students who were killed. There was an outpour of support and gentility from the teenagers I teach every day. It was beautiful.
  • When a girl in college was killed in a car accident my freshman year, her father spoke at the memorial service of challenging us all to have a “Lindsay Day” in her honor. He said that when we have a day where we spend time with friends, do something fun or special with family or just have a peaceful day to ourselves, we should name it a “Lindsay Day,” a day to honor the sweet daughter he lost. He gave us his address and asked us to mail him a postcard describing our day to him. Probably heartwarming and positive reminders of the continuance of his daughter’s spirit.
  • Recently, an old friend from college lost her mother to cancer. On her mother’s birthday, she asked everyone to post to Facebook about what they were doing that was celebratory. She called it “Ursula Fun Challenge Day” in honor of her mother. People posted pictures from all over the country telling about fun things they were doing with friends and family in honor of her mother. I know it helped Heather get through a particularly difficult day and it also was heartwarming for everyone to see all of the happy things we are all doing all the time that any Mom would be happy and proud to be a part of.
  • One day I somehow stumbled upon a blog, The Livie Project written by a Mom who had lost her daughter very early in infancy. She made the blog about all of the things that her daughter would experience but experience in spirit. She had people post pictures doing things where her daughter Livie’s name was spelled out somewhere in the picture. The idea is that through the photos, Livie lives on and gets to experience things she would otherwise never be able to.

So, today, I am going to send out some positive words to people that have affected me or continue to affect me and have made my life better. I am hoping that they, and others, will comment on this post to share positive thoughts, feelings, memories and prayers to help to do what I think words can do: heal, help and hold us.

Because without being the light in the world, we only have the dark. So, we have to look to each other to make the light, be the light and keep the light going, even during a time of great, great, great sorrow.

Like Maya Angelou says, we don’t have an answer about what has happened. But we have words, and those words make up songs and in those songs are the stories of who we are and how we got here. I’d like to say I got here all by my own hard work and dedication to myself, but that would be a lie. I have countless people who have loved and supported me. And this is to them.

12 Blurbs about 12 People Who Make My Life Bright

  1. Michael for challenging me, always, to be a better person and in his words, “make good decisions.”
  2. Kristy for sending me emails that outline the five things that make her smile every day. And for writing to me on certain days and saying, “You ok? I haven’t heard from you in a while.” There are some friends that are lifelong and she is one of those (23 years and counting!). And also to Kerri for being my first best friend who introduced me to Kristy:)
  3. My father who taught me what fresh coffee, a good attitude and a kind word could do for a person’s day.
  4. Katie for not making me feel like my obsessions with reality TV and bologna are gross.
  5. Parker for teaching me that life is big and fun and full of possibility. And for making me take myself less seriously.
  6. Celia for making me see how parenting a daughter is so different from parenting a son—already.
  7. Julie for being the best stand in Mom for my kids. There isn’t anyone sweeter to them. And for being a faithful editor and feedback artist to me in my writing.
  8. My mother, who may never read this blog or be able to use a computer without help, but who told me one important thing as a teenager: “Your reputation is your integrity, Bridgette.” And how right she is.
  9. My students for the way they appreciate me and laugh at my corny jokes.
  10. Mr. Wagar, my fifth grade teacher who recognized my talent in English Language Arts.
  11. My sister-in-law Liz, who, after enduring a brain cancer scare just six months ago can still be one of the most supportive and selfless people I have ever met.
  12. My friends, family and even some strangers who read this blog and make me feel like starting Shortcut Girl wasn’t just a crazy idea that a crazy person came up with.

Post below any “songs” you have for those very special people in your life. Share some words with someone you love today. Because sometimes the words you use to describe a person can really make a difference in how they see themselves.

Because, sometimes, we just need to help each other find the light.