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I don’t think I’ll ever forget this day. Sitting in the backseat of someone’s car with a mother and her 3-year-old daughter right beside me. We were waiting at a McDonald’s drive thru when she said it.
I don’t remember exactly what precipitated her comment, but the mother looked at her daughter and said “you’re so stupid,” followed by “how can you be so dumb.” I looked at her and thought — hoped, really — that maybe it was some kind of inside joke they play with one another.
It wasn’t. The daughter didn’t say a word, didn’t even flinch, and in that moment I knew this type of verbal abuse was typical. My own daughter wasn’t quite one yet, but I remember thinking that I would never, ever, like never ever under any circumstances speak to her in that manner.
I also made a mental note to remind myself that every word I said to my daughter would matter. That every conversation was an opportunity to influence her mind and that how I approached those conversations would be remembered by her forever.
Although the accountability of being a parent is immense, that responsibility needs to be respected without exception.
A lot of pressure, I know. But I thought it was that important. And so I started storytelling. I spoke to my daughter like she was an adult from that moment forward. The goo-goo-ga-ga’s were all but over with.
It’s impossible to tell you every conversation I had with my daughter. I will tell you a couple that have stuck out. The first was more recent. We were deciding on what high school she should go to and of course she said the same school as all of her friends.
“Why would I send you to that school?” I asked her. “That’s a normal school and you’re not a normal student. You would be wasting your gifts.” She sat back and didn’t say a word. I’m sure she was a bit annoyed at me and angry she wouldn’t be going to the same school as her friends.
A few weeks later, she’s telling me a story about one of her friends who’s a really gifted athlete.
“But daddy, she’s going to a normal school. She’s going to waste all of that talent.”
The next conversation worth mentioning was from a few years ago. It was one of the last part time jobs I had before writing full time. I was the janitor of a commercial building and it was my last day on the job.
I remember thinking that I would never, ever, like never ever under any circumstances speak to her in that manner.
I took my daughter with me, changed into my janitor shirt, and got ready to start working. Before I left the car I told her “this is my fake job. One day soon, I won’t have to do this anymore. I’ll be a writer full time.”
Fast forward about 2 years from that day and we happened to be driving past that same building. My daughter looked out the window and said “daddy, your fake job.” We both looked at each other and started laughing.
I know kids can be exhausting. I know they can make you so crazy you’d wish they were never born. But even in those moments, take a quick second to remember that they’re watching you. They’re watching and they’re cataloguing every single word that comes out of your mouth.
Those words shape their thoughts, influences their behavior, and impacts their perspective of the world. So although the accountability of being a parent is immense, that responsibility needs to be respected without exception.
What you say can never be unsaid. What your child hears will in some way go towards their internal narrative of who they are and what they should expect from the world. Your voice is the foundation of that story. Use it wisely.