Sunday, June 23, 2013

Little Ears

Parents, please be careful.

What you say to your children, sticks.
Your words will ring in their little ears. For years. For their whole lives? They might act like they are not listening, or don't care, but they do.You might think they are too old, too stubborn, too far gone to even pay attention to what you say anymore. But even the most defiant have ears, no matter how old or obstinate they are.

My parents' words still matter. A LOT. And I'm over 40. Last night, I gave my parents a few of my articles to review and I was so nervous you'd of thought I was submitting my doctoral thesis to a Harvard professor. OK, pretty close. My Dad is a professor and my Mom a retired teacher, but I'm more nervous about what they will say as my parents, than as professionals. I'm not a fragile snowflake, I won't melt into oblivion if they point out where my writing could be better (It certainly could be!) but their words will matter enough to either propel or deter writing. Why?  Because they are my parents and it matters what they think! Yes, even at 40. Even with healthy self-esteem, a good job and enough writing ability to know that I'm not Hemingway, but I can put a semi-interesting sentence together.
Yes, parents, your child is like a dry sponge and your words like water. They suck 'em up and store 'em.

I've got a lot of good stuff stored. As I drove away from my Mom and Dad's house this past Thanksgiving with a belly full of turkey my Mom yelled, "I miss you already!" as she waved from the driveway. I will not forget those words. I have other "word gifts" from her that I keep close to my heart. I remember my Mom telling me in my early twenties, "Even as a child, you were a leader."
What? I'm a leader? Thanks Mom. I thought I might have some leadership ability, but if you think I'm a leader, I must be.

My Dad has told me some things that have stuck, too. A few years back while having a few laughs on a vacation in the mountains of Big Bear, he said I have "the quick Horner wit." I guess the Horner family heritage includes snappy humor, and for some reason the women of the family seem to take it to an extreme. Evidently, my Aunt Ruth was a real hoot. She created funny moments as wild and memorable as her Irish red hair.
Yeah, I guess I can be pretty funny. If you say so, Dad.

One time while at Payless Shoe Source as teenager, my Mom told me I had "expensive feet."  This was after I had tried on about nine different pairs of dress shoes, none of which fit. They were all too small or too wide or both. I didn't know exactly what she meant, but I thought maybe she meant my feet deserved to be wrapped in elegance, not stuffed inside a made-in-China plastic Payless shoe? Macy's is right next door Mom, let's go! Then she explained that because my feet were long and narrow, it would be hard to find shoes that fit. Most woman wear a size 7 or 8 and have wide feet, she explained. I wore a size 10 and had slender, narrow feet. Great. Thanks for the heads up, Mom. I would be forced to work three jobs just to afford heels for my giant, canoe-like feet.

I also remember my Mom blaming herself for my poor posture.
"I always used to slump at the dinner table," she said. "And I remember you looked over at me, you were about eight or nine, and you imitated me. I tried to tell you to sit up after that, but you continued to slump."  She seemed so remorseful. I was an adult when she told me this and I sat up a little to try to bring the smile back to her face. I tried to remind her that I was not going to be dining with royal family anytime soon and I am sure the people at work don't mind if I am hunched over my Panera Bread panini. Don't worry Mom, it just means that, I, "the slumper" will have to rely on my quick wit at the lunch table to keep people from focusing on my rounded shoulders and hunchback spine.

I also remember being in the church parking lot of First Baptist Church of Reseda, about seven or eight years old, waiting for Sunday School to start. My Dad walked up to me, tapped me on the chin and told me, "Keep your mouth shut. You'll catch flies." I asked him years later why he said that and he replied that as a small child, I had the habit of standing around with my mouth slightly open, like a hungry frog. His words worked. I snapped my mouth shut and was conscious of it from then on. I remembered his words long enough to inquire about what he meant as an adult. When I opened my mouth to finally ask, a whole swarm of flies flew out, but he didn't seem to notice. (Not really of course, but like my Aunt Ruth, I couldn't miss an opportunity like this for a sarcastic outburst.)

Even when parents are WRONG about their children, children believe.Think about all the kids on American Idol who sing about as well as an old Beagle with a sore paw and yet TRULY believe they can sing. They are indignant, even outraged when Simon, or Paula or whoever this year's half drunk celebrity judge is tells them they suck. Why? Nine times out of ten they will say because their MOM or DAD thinks they can sing. "My Mom told me in the waiting room I sing great!" Big fat tears of entitlement slide down their cheeks. "In fact, my Dad said I sound like Whitney Houston!"
Actually, kid, I wish you DID sound like Whitney Houston. The CURRENT Whitney Houston. Silent.
So now I have to wonder about all things my parents said to me that I believe. I hope my Mom was right about the leadership thing. I hope she wasn't just trying to bolster my fledgling self-esteem or keep me from dropping out of college. If not, my staff are in trouble. And you'd tell me if I wasn't as funny as John Stewart, right? Right?!

Ah, the staying power of words, especially parents' words. I used to run a support group for teenage girls. Through the years and tears, the girls would share their troubles and trials, and I noticed much of it included what their parents had said to them. Some would come in to the Monday group and share what they had heard over the weekend at a family party. Some words went back to when they were in grade school, or just out of diapers.
"We wanted a boy, but we had you."
"Maybe your Dad and I wouldn't fight all the time if you did a little more to help around the house!"
"You weren't supposed to be born.You were an oops baby."
"You're fat."
"Your nose is too big."
"Why can't you be more like your brother?"
"Maybe Dad wouldn't drink if you got better grades and weren't out all weekend long."
"That boy doesn't love you. How could he? Look at you! Fix your hair and put on a dress!"
"Do you know much I have had to sacrifice for you?  You think I want to be poor and fat and cleaning up after you like a maid? I do all this for you and what thanks do I get?"
They can repeat these words verbatim. Like a song on a loop, it plays over and over. Trying to re-load their emotional Ipods with new music is very, very difficult, if not impossible.

Parents don't even have to be speaking to their children directly. Even comments you make to other people. At parties. In the car. At church. At the grocery store. On the phone. They hear them and they store them away.
I've worked with kids for years. I hope I've made more deposits than withdrawals in their memory banks. The other day I ran into one of the girls who was in my teenage support group many years ago. She was a young adult now and was picking up groceries from the supermarket. We stood in the crowded shopping center parking lot and she said, "I'll never forget when you said..." I held my breath for a minute. Gosh, I hope this is good. I hope my words healed and didn't scar. "...when you told me that you could see me going to college. No one else ever said that. Now that I am in college, I think about that."
Phew. Thank goodness. 
I hope most of the words I have put into the minds of young people are like this, but I am sure there are some I would wish I could take back. We all get tired, impatient, frustrated, forgetful. Words slip. Ones we can't take back, but wish we could.
We chatter while little brains are forming.
We criticize as self-image is coagulating.
We jab when confidence is coalescing.

God, make each of my words a gift to all those around me. May they build up and not tear down. May I speak the truth in love...
Especially around little ears.

-Hope A. Horner, 2013
Contact author on gmail at hopeh1122.
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