Ugly Words

UGLY: offensive or unpleasant to any sense; morally offensive or objectionable; surly; quarrelsome

I was on the receiving end of a phone call filled with ugly words this week.  I knew they were untrue, unfair, and unreasonable but they still filled me with adrenaline and left me feeling bruised and battered.  It was an unpleasant call.  I wish it hadn’t happened.  But I’m trying to make the best of it.  In some ways, the reminder of the power of words came at a good time for me.

Son is prone to hyperbole and dramatic statements and I’ve been trying hard to explain the importance of using words wisely.  I’ve been treating his words as truth and reacting accordingly to prove a point when needed.  When he announced in anger that he was done participating in the Summer Reading Program and never going to read another book, I gave him one chance to reconsider his statement before destroying the list of books he had been keeping to turn in for more stars.  When he says he hates what I serve for breakfast, I ask if he means what he’s saying.  He is quick to change his comments because he knows that I am perfectly willing to take breakfast away and make him wait for lunch.  When we come back from a trip to the zoo or beach and he says that he didn’t have any fun, I let him know that the next time he asks for a special outing I will be unlikely to agree since my efforts were not appreciated.  I give him a chance to try again – a chance to talk about the things he liked best as well as the parts he found frustrating or disappointing.  We’re making progress, but we still have hills to climb.  I was getting weary of the struggle and wondering if it was worth the effort.  But, the phone call filled with ugly words has renewed my commitment.  Words matter.  I want my kids to use them wisely.

The other lesson that I want to teach my children is that ugly words are hard to clean up.  Even sincere apologies can’t fully erase the damage.  The best an apology can do is put salve on the wounds, ice the swelling.  It’s like painting over graffiti.  The paint you use to cover the tag never quite matches the original wall color.  There is still a blemish.  A shadow of the vandalism.

Finally, I want my kids to learn that they don’t owe every speaker their ears.  I don’t know why it took me so long to hang up the phone.  I was slow to realize that nothing I could say was going to diffuse the caller’s anger.  I was even slower to realize that I had complete control over how many ugly words I subjected myself to.  In hindsight, I am baffled that I continued to listen for as long as I did.  I can’t explain it.  But, I don’t want that to happen to my children.  I want them to be so familiar with the appropriate use of words that they recognize it as violence when words are being used as weapons.  I would not want them to attempt to negotiate or pacify an armed intruder – I would want them to flee.  I want to empower them to protect themselves in the same way from people intentionally using words to wound.

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12 thoughts on “Ugly Words

  1. I think these lessons about words and their power are very important. I hope your children learn them and apply them well. Kids must realize that sorry doesn’t always clearn everything up.

  2. Great essay on a tough subject. And for the record, you kept listening because you are an optimist. You harboured some kind of hope that you MIGHT be able to sway the person on the other end – to resolve the matter in some equitable fashion. It is difficult to concede that the “person on the other end” Is NOT always rationale and sometimes you have to just let it go, but I think it’s still important to teach your kids that optimism, right along with the self-defense.Each will serve them well at some point.

  3. What you say about apologizing is so true. I heard someone say, “Don’t be sorry. Be different.” That struck a chord with me and I tell my kids the same thing. We can tell our kids to say “sorry” all day long but it’s a real gift to teach them how to make better choices with their words and actions. Great post!

    1. I agree that it’s important to teach them how to apologize with actions. We make ours ask “How can I make you feel better?” when they do someone wrong. I think that’s more effective for little ones that forcing them to utter particular words.

  4. Thanks for sharing. Sorry you had to endure the phone version of a nasty-gram. Especially liked your points: “I want to empower them to protect themselves in the same way from people intentionally using words to wound.” And “How can I make you feel better?” for wronging a person. For situations (not people) where The Kid might say sorry, like making a mess, I heard this line that we use, “How can you make it right?” Or maybe even, “How can you make it better?”

  5. What a beautiful post. I love your comparisons for how apologies can’t fully erase the damage. A wise person once told me to put down the phone when someone was verbally assaulting me. You’re so right in how we need to protect ourselves from the abuse of others. Your kids are lucky to have a mom who is so very thoughtful and reflective (and an awesome writer)!

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