I’ve written here before that I try to modulate my turn of phrase with my children, as per parenting advice of the day – or really, just common sense if I want to keep my kids out of therapy when they are older. So, if the situation calls for it, I say ‘that’s naughty behaviour’ instead of ‘you are a naughty boy’ or ‘that was a mean thing to do’ instead of ‘you are mean.’
I slip up all the time, of course. I was brought up in the late Seventies and Eighties, when it was still ok to hit children to stop them misbehaving. On that, recently my mother observed that my three boys ‘never listen to a word you say.’ Disheartening but true; they mostly don’t. I slide around on language, and more than a few times I’ve called these creatures, born perfect and pure, ‘naughty’ or ‘bad’. If I do, I catch myself. In the midst of such linguistic wrestling last week, I said to my middle son, ‘I love you, always, even when you are angry like this,’ trying to convey – which I hope they feel anyway – this baseline of love, so that they know that their frequent foul and stinking moods can be tethered to something strong and constant.
He looked at me and said, ‘Mummy I still think you are beautiful even when you are angry.’ Mmm, ok, I thought. What a lovely thing to say, I said to him, his big blue eyes blinking with pleasure as he realised that his words could have such an effect. The older one walked in, wondering what this lovely thing was his brother had said to me, so I repeated it. Then, the older one casually said to the younger one, ‘You should use my line. I always tell her that there is lightness inside the darkness.’
The younger nodded sagely, as if to say, this is a good line indeed to use when my mother is cross with me. But – wow. You should use my line? What in the name of the good lord am I teaching my boys? To spin women lines? To sweet talk them? They are three and five! The five year old got the lightness in darkness line from one of the Lego movies, and kudos to him for spotting that I would be an absolute sucker for such a line, wheeled out at the right time. The three year old obviously got it directly from me; I’ve somehow taught him to throw out a few select words, like bait for a better mood, when we are in a state of emotional fray together.
I think of them as adult men, having a conversation with their other half. Their partner is annoyed about something, wants to discuss it, get it out into the open. They want to be taken seriously. ‘You look beautiful when you are angry.’ Can you imagine? ‘Darling, whatever. I’ve told you this so many times. There is lightness inside the darkness.’
I don’t know; it starts here, with me, doesn’t it – how my boys will relate to their partners in the future. It’s back to language again, perhaps the final layer in the nuances of parenting, for it is clear children instinctively read levels below that, lies which cannot be told, love which cannot be dampened – but language is important. Words have such power, and we often just throw them away like discarded shells, the oyster still nestling within.