Sunday, January 18, 2009

Mother's Little Helper

Typical suburban scene: Friday night, late-ish, squeezing in a last-minute food run at Trader Joe's before they close.

It's one of those rare shopping trips that's kid-less, and I'm pathetically basking in the freedom of the moment and the freedom from answering questions like "Why are melons round?" and, well, just freedom. Sad, but it's come to this. And I'm okay with that. Sort of.

And I'm inspecting the southern region of the frozen aisle, having just picked up a new pesto and tomato flatbread I've never seen before. Straight ahead I see a mom, a four-year-old boy and a baby. The baby's in a car seat which itself is in the shopping cart.

An older gentleman offers a comment to the mom, after the young boy has put something in the cart: "You've got a great little helper there," he says.

The mother gives one of those tired, exasperated mom looks without making eye contact with the kindly well-meaning older gentleman.

"Sometimes," sighs the mother, and she starts pushing her cart, moving on.


And that got me thinking.

I've been in the same situation, many times, and I might have said the exact same thing (I don't remember). But why "sometimes"? Why not: "He sure is." Or: "Yep, we're real proud of our little slugger." Or: "You should see him when he bags the groceries too."

Why do parents -- including myself -- feel the need to disparage their kids in public like that? What kid is going to feel good about "sometimes"? It's a verbal slap in the face, even if it wasn't meant as such. The mother was just being honest. She looked tired. She was tired. As I write this, the bags under my eyes have their own bags. I fell asleep while feeding both Henry and Celia. Then I almost fell asleep at dinner, almost plowed my face right into a plate of carnitas (bought, by the way, that same night at Trader Joe's). So I get it.

These are the kinds of things I think about as a parent, perhaps too much. "Sometimes" was probably the truth. But isn't it better to praise a kid at the moment they're doing something good and not disparage them for something "bad" done at another time, in the past?

Again, I think about these things too much. Like: why and how has the word "kill" entered Ethan's vocabulary. I know he doesn't know what it means, but it's still unsettling to hear a sweet three-year-old boy say "I killed him, Daddy," when referring to two toys who weren't getting along. ("Can they be friends?" I asked hopefully. However, my diplomatic skills were about as good as W.'s. "No Daddy, he's dead now.")

Words are powerful. Kids listen. They absorb everything. You try not to put your foot in your mouth or say the wrong thing. But you do. And you will. Again and again and again. You just try to do better.

Next time: I'll try not to say sometimes. I'll say something nice about my son.

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