I have never really been much of a swearer. When I was growing up, my mother drilled it into me that swearing is a lazy form of self-expression. She encouraged me to choose my words more carefully, often with more devastating effect than any S- or F-bomb could ever achieve. So, while my French husband constantly has to bite back the “merde!” and “putain!” that pervade French speech, it’s never been hard for me to watch my language around the children. And that’s one less thing to worry about in the pool of anxiety that is parenthood, plus I get to feel all smug when he slips up and receives shocked glances from the kids and whispers of “Naughty Papa said the P word!”
I am, however, horribly guilty of using bad language of another kind. Firstly, I complain: “My back hurts. There’s so much washing to do. It’s raining again”. I use negative self-talk at times: “Oh heck, I look ancient this morning!” And I criticise: “For heaven’s sake, could the checkout go any slower?” (imagine that with a Chandler Bing-style intonation). Now, I don’t do this all the time, but I do it more often than I care for, and it happens in front of the children. I doubt I’m alone here. Using these kinds of negative speech is so common, I bet many of us don’t even notice it. But I did recently. I had a sort of out-of-body moment as I truly heard myself doing all three and realised I have less to feel smug about than I thought. Because just as I don’t want to hear my children effing and blinding, nor do I want them to become complaining, self-insulting and critical.
When searching for wisdom, always look to musical theatre
There’s a lyric in Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods that warns, “Careful the things you say –
Children will listen; Careful the things you do – Children will see, And learn…” Ever since my Damascene moment, I’ve had that song playing in my head on a loop. Because it’s true. Every time I complain I have too much to do and not enough time, my son is listening and learning that life is about lack and rushing. Every time I make an offhand remark about feeling like a hog after a large lunch, my daughter hears me and learns that food and indulgence lead to guilt and recriminations. When I criticise, the kids are absorbing the message that when life isn’t as we would like, the right response is to get annoyed and assign blame.
The medium is the message
It rather goes without saying that none of this is what I want to teach my children. But the message they receive when I use these three types of communication – complaining, negative self-talk and criticising – is that they are acceptable, normal and perhaps even useful. But we all know they’re not. All three backfire on the user! Complaining about tiredness doesn’t make you less tired. Insulting a wobbly tummy doesn’t make it shrink. And criticising others doesn’t make them more competent. In fact, these three acts all actually make the situation worse. I feel even more tired when I bang on about how little sleep I got. Berating myself for double helpings of pudding brings me down and probably leads to my raiding the biscuit barrel for comfort. Criticising others just makes me feel like a mean-spirited cow.
Changing the record
So what’s to be done? How can I – we – change? Well, there is the swear jar option. If you’re really far gone, a euro/pound/dollar in the pot every time you use negative talk might even let you upgrade your car by Christmas. I think it really all starts with mindfulness, though. Noticing what you’re saying (and how you’re saying it) and choosing the words you use and sentiments you express with care. Enlisting a family member to help you do this is a good idea, but really it has to come from within. Mindful speech is a fundamental part of mindful living because the way we describe the world, how we name it and put it into words directly influences how we perceive it, how we feel about it, and our actions in it.
This doesn’t mean we have to deny the fact that we’re tired, or that the post office clerk is slow or that eating too much has left us feeling bloated. It simply means choosing more carefully the way we frame the expression of these feelings to make it productive, or at least not harmful – to us and our children. So, “I’m tired. Hmmm… I’m sure I’ll feel less so after a cup of tea”. “Wow, I feel so full after that lunch – salad for dinner for me, I think”. “Gosh, this line is moving slowly – well, it gives me time to reply to some text messages”.
There is so much in life that we cannot influence or choose. What we say and how we say it are two things over which we have total control. I plan to exercise that control more mindfully in the future – both for my own happiness and to ensure my children are receiving messages I’m proud to send.
If you’d like to change some behaviours and attitudes that are holding you back from living life to the full and with joy, energetic and supportive coaching that focuses on making the right changes for you can help you achieve the mental shift you require. Contact me for your free introductory coaching session to find out how working together can help you build a life lived with purpose and on purpose.