Cryptic Stuff Parents Say

by Nicole Leigh Shaw
A curly-haired girl in a pink shirt looking confused and touching her hair.

“Great minds, kid.”

I say this a lot to my kids when we have similar ideas. “Great minds!” I’ve also been known to say, “If I had a dollar…” and leave it at that. If I’m feeling really old-farty, I say, “If I had a nickel…” but I don’t think my kids understand that the round metal disks they collect and then scatter around my house are legal tender, so I avoid all references to coins, knowing my kids are already savvy enough to value paper money more.

I don’t bother finishing these phrases because I know what I mean. But are my kids baffled? They must be. Will they grow up to trade these half-truisms in college classrooms and think tanks, studying them, searching for meaning? “Great minds…are better than good minds? Great minds…inhabit intact crania? WHATEVER COULD THE END OF THAT PITHY NUGGET BE!?”

Of course, they won’t do that, because they have Google. So what I’m really teaching them is that their mother is an idiomatic mystery but they can ignore her in favor of the all-knowing Internet.

I don’t use these phrases for them, anyway. I use them for myself. Like every other adult, I have certain verbal tics that I use in lieu of thoughtful responses. Some of them include: “Kool and the Gang” when I mean to say “yes, that’s good,” “Ground Control to Major Tom” when I mean “pay attention,” and “chill, biscuit” when I mean “that’s enough freaking out.”

I may as well be speaking a foreign language. Kool and the Gang? Celebrate good times when your mother references bands you’ll only ever hear at weddings.

Here’s another gem I use on the kids: It’s your funeral. I like to use salient imagery when judging their choices. It’s important that they know that I equate not wearing a jacket to school with their deaths. “You don’t have to wear a coat to the bus stop, kid. Hey, it’s your funeral.”

If kids drop slang because it’s how they identify with their contemporaries and keep their parents guessing, I suppose it’s not surprising that moms and dads drop slang, expressions and sayings that do the same thing: confuse and alienate their children.

I’ve been struggling with “gotta see a man about a horse” since my father first laid it on me back in 1982. Maybe he wanted a euphemistic way to talk about pissing, maybe he just wanted to be weird.

I enjoy keeping my kids in the dark when I speak. It’s one of the few perks of being a parent. It’s the same parental urge that drives us to say “maybe” and “we’ll see.”

Or do grown-ups say things like this because we want kids to think we know things about things? Children expect answers from us, wisdom and knowledge and help opening difficult food packaging. They don’t realize that sometimes we can’t open the damn jelly jar, either. But saying, “this thing is tighter than a duck’s ass, and that’s waterproof!” surely makes our kids admire how much we know about the workings of duck bottoms.

When I think of the sheer pressure of adulthood, and parenthood, the idea that we are responsible for taxes and remembering to register small people for pee wee soccer, is insane. We ate half a ham sandwich the other day before realizing the bread was moldy. If we can’t handle white bread, we’re doomed to fail at child-rearing. Maybe being cryptic sonsabitches is how we maintain our false cred and give the children the sense that we really have our shit together, wise as we are with our words. Someday, the kids will be adults, too, and they will know we are basically half-wits making our best guesses.