By Sue Murphy
I saw a T-shirt the other day that said, “I’ll always remember what Mama used to say to me … ‘What’s the matter with you??’” I laughed, but I also cringed.
For better or for worse, my voice was part of the soundtrack of my girls’ childhood. The phrases, “Brush your teeth,” “Do your homework,” and “If I have to come up there one more time …” got a lot of play, but surely there were happier tunes.
I came right out and asked the girls what they remembered me saying, which was risky, but I figured if it was something positive, it would make me smile, and if it was negative, I would be in a position to apologize and fix whatever damage I had done. It was a win/win.
Immediately, one daughter said, “There’s no sense looking like a schlep if you don’t have to.” I could live with that. She sweetened the deal by telling me that she had used the exact same phrase with her son the day before. Why did he have to wear a collared shirt to church? So he wouldn’t look like a schlep, which I realize is not exactly how the word is supposed to be used, but “schlep” certainly sounded like something disheveled. I should have said, “Schlemiel.” Oh well, one is always editing.
My other daughter remembered, “Don’t eat like a troglodyte.” I’ll stand by that one, too, and although the reference was a bit obscure, I used the word correctly.
We say a lot of things to our children, some steeped in encouragement, others intentionally sent out to modify their behavior so they can become kind, functioning adults. If I remember correctly, along with the schlep and troglodyte suggestions, I did tell my girls that they were unique and loved and capable of doing anything they set their minds to, except playing in the NBA. There was no chance of that.
The problem is, parenting is not just a job. It’s a life, one lived in tandem with your own grown-up life. That, my friends, is a minefield. You, the unfinished product, are given the job of moving someone else along in a kind and effective manner. You and your children are evolving at the same time, and let’s face it: mistakes will be made. Some things will be said in the calm, nurturing tone you strive for, but others (hopefully not as many) will be spewed out in frustration or anger.
Positive or negative, words stick. As our children are growing and changing, our words serve as a mirror of who they are, and as they have very few other references, they take our words as truth until they are given evidence to the contrary.
I think that’s one of the things that bothers me about the college admission cheating scandal. People paying for special treatment is nothing new. Bumping out a deserving student so your well-heeled but possibly undeserving child can take his place is wrong, a contrived life-changing event for both parties. The thing that bothers me the most, though, is that this intervention is telling the well-heeled child that what he could accomplish on his own merits would not be good enough. Going to the satellite state school wouldn’t do, even if that’s where the child’s abilities and efforts would be most successfully placed.
But, who am I to judge? Those parents were striving to get their children into name brand universities. I just wanted to make sure mine wore clean clothes and didn’t chew with their mouths open. I’m such a schlemiel.