It’s funny how seemingly insignificant details from our lives can stay with us for decades.
When I was in my late 20s and on a path of self-destructive behavior that, even today, remains inexplicable, I can remember sitting with my neighbor one morning at his kitchen table. We were most likely smoking weed and I think I said, to no one in particular, “I wish I had a cigarette right now.”
My neighbor responded, “My mom used to say, ‘Wish in one hand and sh*t in the other and see which one fills up first.”
Now, remember, I’m all “wake and bake,” so what would usually go by me as the flotsam of banal conversation reverberated like I was in an echo chamber. I immediately put a stop to the talking.
“Hold up! This is something your mother said to you?”
I was speechless. As an English major who began taking graduate seminars in my junior year, I will admit that I’ve always had a tendency to read into things, but if this was the sort of life lesson my neighbor was taught as a child, everything made perfect sense. The drug dealing, the disaster that used to be his marriage, the habitual substance misuse, and the loneliness that concludes—to paraphrase the great physician Gabor Maté—that the question shouldn’t be “why the addiction but why the pain?”
My stoned brain imagined a flashback scene of a first-generation Eastern European family, the mother hopelessly disappointed and pragmatic, and my neighbor as a boy with each of his dreams systematically extinguished as he grew up.
There are many things that parents have said to children through the ages that are no less than traumatizing. (And this was a great example.) I know for myself, I have brought things up in therapy that my parents used to say habitually and have seen how deeply injured I have been by a lot of it.
Now, before you roll your eyes and mutter “poor baby,” please understand that I’m not mentioning this in a ploy to feel sorry for myself. I am on a journey to figure out why I spent 20 years making a full-time occupation out of self-harm and substance misuse. A lot of it, for better or worse, had to do with a continual need to get away from my own feelings. It only makes sense that if you come close to killing yourself in the pursuit of escaping certain emotions, you might want to find out where those emotions originated, right?
So, for better or worse, I have compiled a list of some of the most damaging and self-defeating phrases that were programmed into me, and many others, as a child and why they’re better off avoided—especially as I parent my own children:
My father had a tendency to say this as a justification for why he and I had such a contentious and distant relationship. Truthfully, he was not my friend, and at times, he wasn’t my parent either. He struggled with a kind of self-loathing that made it so his thoughts were constantly on himself, and not in a positive way. That kind of self-focused behavior—even if one is absorbed with what they believe are their worst qualities—makes for unhealthy parenting. And unhealthy parenting creates children who are confused and alienated. I have observed, through the years, that the best parents were friends with their children—but with very clear boundaries. This old-fashioned, authoritarian approach is hurtful and problematic and a great lesson for how I don’t want to cultivate my relationship with my kids.
2. “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
I remember during an especially hormonal time—I was probably around 15—I started crying and just could not stop. My father, not knowing exactly how to handle this, simply yelled this phrase. It worked, too. I lost the ability to cry. Unfortunately, there were times during my young adult life that things got so bad, I would’ve given anything for that release. There are probably also quite a few women in the world who are walking around convinced that I am emotionally dissociated, which I suppose I am. The best I can do now is to well up, but the act of actually crying has been lost to me since that day.
3. “For someone who’s supposed to be so smart (you do a lot of dumb things).”
I’ll tell you the truth: it was things like this that made me angry that my parents had children right out of high school. Every child pushes boundaries and tests limits. But to say something so hurtful in response is simply unacceptable. Phrases like this become co-opted as part of a person’s self-talk long into adulthood. It didn’t matter that intellectually I always knew that was not something you should say to your child, it still exists in my subconscious.
4. “You kids have no sense of humor.”
I had to hear this overused phrase hundreds of times as I grew up, and usually after my parents said something that hurt my feelings. And it always perplexed me. Somehow, in their version of a perfect world, they hoped to have children who would laugh along with their often-insensitive jibes. I had forgotten how incensed this phrase used to make me, but man, it was one of the worst.
5. “You don’t know how good you have it.”
Okay, with everything going on in the world currently, it’s hard to ignore the reality of how safe and comfortable we generally are in the United States; however, when you are a 13-year-old boy having 13-year-old boy problems, this is likely one of the most unhelpful things a parent could say. I remind my girls all the time about how different life is in other parts of the world—I just won’t do it when they run in crying because they were left out of a game or a boy called them a name.
Being a parent isn’t easy—I can vouch for this fact. But it’s also not impossible. I mean, I drive a semi even when it’s snowing, and if I can’t keep it right side up, I won’t be invited to come back the next day.
This is where mindfulness can be so important. If we are present, if we are in the moment, we can easily see how we’re affecting those around us–especially our own children. It’s always been my belief that if one takes on the responsibility of creating human life, this is part of that contract.
It’s really the only way to give a child a fighting chance at a fulfilling adulthood.