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It’s a curious affliction: the tendency to talk about one’s children in the most brutally honest and hurtful ways without realizing that the cherished subjects of the offensive comments are listening to every word. Right now, you may be saying to yourself, “This never happens to me.” Perhaps. Perhaps not. But I think there’s a good chance you’ll see yourself in at least one of the following examples.
Unloading a cart full of Cheerios, macaroni-and-cheese and hot dogs at the grocery store’s checkout counter, a harried mother chats animatedly to the cashier. “…Only one more week ‘til summer vacation, then the kids will be home all day. I can already hear the bickering and whining! I don’t know how I’ll manage to live through the next few months! Want to buy two kids, cheap?” The cashier laughs and shakes her head, “Oh, no thanks, I have my own! I know what you mean! I’m already waiting for next September!” In their supposedly innocent light-hearted banter, neither one notices the shopper’s two children standing right beside her, listening quietly to every hurtful word. Neither one notices a pair of small eyes cast downward just so, or a nervous little cough.
Consider Amir’s situation as he walks in the door after another grueling day of work. His joyful, eager children run for Daddy, but Mom spies him coming in just before they have their chance to pounce. And the daily gripe session begins. “I am SO glad you’re home. I need five minutes of peace and quiet. These kids drove me crazy all day! Abdi and Sheida have been like wild animals. They were fighting in the living room pathways | issue 17 33 and knocked over the potted fern. Aria has been acting like a two-year-old—having temper tantrums over every little thing. The wash machine is broken again and I have four stacks of kids’ dirty clothes piled up in the laundry room…” Quietly and unnoticed, three dispirited children fade into the background of the family room and turn on the TV.
Then there’s Megan, chatting on the phone with her best friend. As usual, the conversation turns to the daily issues with their children. Megan dramatically relates how very annoyed she was with Kyle at baseball this morning. “I was so embarrassed!” she groans. “Kyle struck out and he stomped his foot like a baby and threw his helmet on the ground. You’d think he was five years old instead of 15!” She chuckled. “I think adolescent hormones are taking over.” Meanwhile, said adolescent is just a few feet away, pretending to work on his homework—but actually suffering the embarrassment of listening to his mother talk about his very real pain as if it were some big joke.
I know many parents who slip into the type of unfortunate conversation of a mother and father who approached me after a recent parenting lecture. They were anxious to talk with me, bemoaning their three-year-old’s latest behavior problems. “Molly’s been a good girl until recently. It’s like we’ve entered the terrible twos a bit late. She’s just no fun anymore. She’s constantly yelling ‘No!’ to us and won’t listen to a word we say. We’ve tried to be patient, but she’s pushed us to the end of our rope!” I glance down to see a little threeyear- old (Molly, perhaps?) clinging tightly to her father’s leg. But she’s only three, she doesn’t understand what they’re saying, this couldn’t possibly hurt her.