My friend burst through my front door, her toddler and infant in tow, both tear-streaked and whining. “They’ve been just horrible today,” she moaned, prodding them toward the living room. I could (unfortunately) identify.
“Mine have been awful too,” I commiserated, gesturing to one of my sons standing beside me, who blinked innocently as though he hadn’t been acting like a giant asshole for the last hour and a half. “Is it a full moon or something? I’m so sick of hearing them argue.”
This wasn’t an unusual interaction. I and most other moms I know are always snarking about the kids. And since they’re right underneath us a large percentage of the time, they’re around to hear it. I never gave that a second thought until a little while later when my husband and I were talking to our neighbors. “I’m such a lucky guy,” my husband beamed, putting his arm around my shoulders. He continued to talk about the specifics, the things he loves about me, and though I was a little embarrassed, I was inwardly glowing with pride.
It was a wonderful feeling, so wonderful that I kept thinking about it long after the interaction was over, replaying it in my head, a sweet moment to savor again and again (and a definite boost to my self-esteem). But it brought to mind something a little more unpleasant: all the times I complain about my kids in their presence.
And I had a revelation: People — kids, spouses, friends — need to hear good things about themselves. My kids need to hear me speaking their praises, not complaining about their behavior. I gripe about them far too often. If hearing my husband speak positively about me made me feel good, what was happening with my kids on the opposite end of the spectrum, who were not only hearing my grievances, but witnessing them relayed to others?
It’s not that I’m brutally berating my kids or being verbally abusive, but when they hear me talk to others about how disagreeable or grumpy or stubborn they’ve been, it can’t be doing them any favors. They may not even outright notice it, but it’s there. And like breathing polluted air or drinking tainted water, it has to be impacting them on some level.
I can’t pinpoint why it’s so much more believable to hear someone talking about you versus to you — even if they’re saying the same thing — but it is. I suppose it’s because when someone gives you a direct compliment, you never really know whether they actually mean it or are just trying to make you feel good.
But when someone is complimenting you to another person, it’s not out of any sort of obligation to prop up your ego. It’s more genuine somehow. Letting the people you love overhear you saying good things about them goes above and beyond a compliment. It says, “I think you’re so awesome that I not only want you to know it, but everyone else too.”
So as a result, I’ve been trying to be more mindful of what I say about my kids when they’re listening. Does this mean I don’t rant and rave to my husband or my friends about the crappy things they do? Of course not. I’m human, and they still drive me up the wall some days. But I do it when they’re out of earshot.
The other day during his basketball game, my 7-year-old stopped on the sidelines to help a fallen teammate while everyone else continued to play. And when I told his dad and brothers about it, I was sure to let him hear. “Coby was such a good friend today,” I launched into the story with a smile. “I was so proud of his sportsmanship.”
I was hoping that by saying something good in front of my son instead of something bad, I could begin to negate some of the damage I may have already inadvertently done. And I think it did. The look on his face as he blissfully soaked up the praise was all the confirmation I needed.