I read this article in The Mighty: 21 ‘Harmless’ Comments People Heard Growing Up That Affect Their Mental Health Now by Juliette Virzi. Of the 21, I recognized several that were used on me. Many of the 21 are real gut-punchers when you think about it.
It’s true: what parents can say to their children hamstrings them in ways most people don’t think of.
Remember parents, the offhand remarks you make will be remembered by your children as if they were human tape recorders. And they may remember what you say all their lives.
When I was, maybe 7 or 8-years-old, I watched our local high school quiz show Academic Challenge on TV. As the years went on I was answering more and more questions. Finally, when I was about 12, I remember being in the living room watching the show and turning to my mom in the dining room and stating definitively “I’m going to be on that show.”
She pooh-pooh’d the idea saying “I don’t know; you have to be pretty smart to get on that show.”
I was on it twice – both junior and senior year – no one had done that at my school before. We won big both times.
Why did my mom do this to me, especially since she knew, from an early age because of testing (we’re talking four-years-old here) that I was a bright child?
She finally told me when I was in my 20s – “We didn’t want you to get a big head,” she said. At the time, she also told me she had my IQ tested (and I don’t remember it) but she resolved never to tell me what it was – for the same reason.
It would have been very useful for me to know that I was not an idiot when I’d be called to the chalkboard in high school algebra class. I remember my hand gripping the chalkboard, writing a number or letter or two and then freezing; sweat pouring, thinking the whole world was watching.
And my mother got a call from that algebra teacher one evening which I was present to overhear. The deal they struck (between two professional educators, no less!) was that I would get a ‘gentlemen’s D’ for the class if I would turn in completed homework. Oh, and she would not call me to the board again.
It was only years later when I took a community college course in technical math that I realized I could actually do this work – as long as it wasn’t high stakes, I could pace myself, and didn’t have to go to the board. It was one of the greatest personal triumphs of my life.
But see, she didn’t want me to get a ‘big head.’
It was a similar reason she didn’t allow me to take karate lessons when I was 11 and already getting pretty overweight – she thought I might get too ‘full of myself.’ At a time when I badly needed exercise and some male direction (all my teachers were nuns), neither she, nor my Marine Veteran father, did anything to help me other than force me to play little league baseball (which I hated) more for the social than physical aspects.
Part of the reason was her own personal brand of Catholicism – the nuns had taught her humility and her son was going to learn it too.
And from all the awards my sister won in high school theater and all the encouragement she got to pursue her thespian dreams even outside high school, it was to be only her son who got this lesson. Because my sister was in high school theater, I was forbidden to try out for any plays – that was ‘her thing.’
I still wonder to this day why these things were said/done to me? Was I always such an asshole that I had to constantly be pounded down, lest I, well, believe in myself?
The “You’re too young to be going through that” was constantly used by my father who paired it up with “You have no idea what it’s really like to struggle.” and added a generous dose of “You need an attitude adjustment,” which was delivered in his usual ‘take this one step further and I’ll backhand ya one’ growl.
One more example – because this one set me off a career path early.
“Are you sure you want to be [occupation]? That’s a lot of hard work.”
Because I had a natural love of history and good verbal communication skills, I said to my mother one evening that I thought I would like to teach history.
Her reply? “If you go into education, I’ll disown you.”
I thought she was serious and turned my attention to journalism instead. When I got a job my senior year in high school at an actual suburban daily paper, the news was greeted with a collective shrug.
Sometimes I look back and am amazed I got as far as I did with such a lack of support and all the things said that actively discouraged me from trying to excel.
But all the time I was in school, if I brought home a bad grade, I would hear about it – especially in math.
Negative reinforcement was always in good supply while positive reinforcement was non-existent.
Telling your kids they do worthwhile things and can achieve what they put their minds to is not ‘coddling’ or raising a ‘snowflake;’ it is an absolute stepping stone to achievement in life.
So parents, look over those 21 examples. If you hear yourself saying any of those, please stop. The damage you do may only show up many years later – and then it might be too late.