Language is fascinating. As babies, we absorb it, trying valiantly to create the very sounds we hear from our parents, caretakers, and Sesame Street characters. Then, the day comes when we realize its surprisingly enormous power. Language can bring joy, it can put smiles on faces, and it can transform a room of silence into one of lively conversation. But as we all know, language can have another very different impact. It hurts. It causes tears. It creates a divide between people who once loved each other. Language, in essence, is a weapon.
I can’t remember the first time one of my children told me they “hated me.” I can, however, tell you that it still happens occasionally, and that it doesn’t bother me. As their father, part of my job is to do and say things that are unpopular. I make them do their homework before they can play games. I don’t let them have sugary foods before bed. If they hate me once in a while, I know I’m doing a good job.
“I hate you, daddy.” It’s their only defense when they’re angry, and I get that.
However, “I hate you” is not the phrase I’m targeting today. Because about a week ago, I was watching my older son toss around a paper airplane he’d created. Amidst the fun, he inadvertently tossed it directly into a wall. The airplane came apart and became nearly impossible to fix. His eyes welled up with tears.
“I hate…myself,” he said. It rattled me. Because it wasn’t the first time he’d said it. And I was concerned that it was becoming a staple of his vernacular, that he’d start to actually believe it.
I knelt down next to him and made him look into my eyes, and I told him that I never wanted to hear those words again, that he can’t beat himself up over the little things, and that he needs to respect himself. I doubt it completely resonated with him, but he needed to know one thing: That phrase won’t be tolerated.
“I hate…myself,” he said. It rattled me. Because it wasn’t the first time he’d said it.
The difference between your kid telling you they hate you and them saying they hate themselves is, five minutes later, they’ve already forgotten they “hate you.” Self-hate is much more potentially poisonous, and can have crippling effects that linger into adolescence and beyond. And it doesn’t just impact the individual. It impacts everyone around them, as self-loathing yields a ripple effect.
Kids who start to believe they hate themselves undervalue their own worth. They sometimes struggle to form new friendships. At times, they lack the confidence to raise their hand in school, even if they think they know the answer. As teenagers, they avoid talking to girls, missing chance after chance to connect with a potential love interest, because they assume they’ll be rejected. And as adults, they might choose not to apply for that dream job because they assume it won’t work out.
I know this to be true and possible, because this is my story. I didn’t have a high opinion of myself as a child. So, in turn, I found myself struggling in many areas. Socially, academically, emotionally. I often avoided attention because I didn’t have the confidence to deal with focus being on me, even if it was for a positive reason. As an adult, it blows my mind to think of what I was capable of doing, had I only believed in myself, instead of listening to the voice in my head that kept reminding me I wasn’t good enough. I’d absolutely hate to see any of my children suffer the same fate. And I believe that we aren’t doing our jobs as parents if we aren’t steering our children away from the same mistakes we made ourselves.
Sometimes words are just words. But other times they become our inner narrative, an unchanging pillar of our belief system. I know many parents whose worst fear is their kid overhearing a curse word and repeating it. And while I certainly wouldn’t be thrilled if any of my kids dropped an F bomb at the dinner table at age 7, my fear is not of strong language, but of the lasting negative impact that language might have. If the words we’re saying are demeaning and belittling (to ourselves or others), that’s the kind of impact I’d very much like to avoid for my children. In essence, I don’t fear strong language. I fear language that makes us weak.
The wise Peggy O’Mara once said that, “the way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” My goal is to ensure that voice is an empowering one.
Joe DeProspero can be reached on Twitter @JoeDeProspero.