By Lisa Sugarman
There’s this saying I often use with my kids—it’s one of the many profound nuggets of parenting wisdom I lug around in my head and try to use appropriately from time to time. And it goes like this, You can’t take back the spoken word. A pretty powerful concept when you think about it.
I mean, we’ve all had experiences—either as kids or as adults—when someone gave us a compliment or a criticism that left an indelible mark on our heart, on our mind, or in some cases, on both. And as most of us know, those kinds of marks are a lot like tattoos—for better or for worse, they’re with us for life.
Maybe you were like me as a kid and someone criticized you for wearing tomboyish clothes so it made you extra sensitive to the clothing choices you made for years to come. Or maybe you were a middle schooler who didn’t consider yourself an artist until your art teacher told you she thought you had real talent.
The truth is, those kind of interactions have the potential to shape our future in both good and bad ways. And it’s especially true for negative feedback, which can be as dangerous as a loaded handgun. That’s because when hostile words come hurtling at you, they can rip right through your heart with the same devastation as any caliber bullet out there.
That’s why it’s always so important to think before you speak. Because once hurtful words hit the air, there’s no grabbing hold of them and swallowing them back down. They’re out in the universe and burned into someone’s memory forever.
Now the reason I’m thinking about this is because of a spontaneous conversation I had with a friend the other day about something I said to her daughter that left a pretty acute mark on her sweet little brain. And she wanted me to know how poignant my words were in her daughter’s eyes.
In this case the little girl I’m talking about is a fourth grader and I’m one of her cross country running coaches; and something I said to her at practice last week made a strong impression on her. Stronger than I even realized. Lucky for me, though, it made a strong positive impression.
We were doing tempo runs at practice trying to teach the girls how to find their just-right pace and my little friend was giving a 110% effort the entire time and it showed. That’s why every time she ran past me during practice I yelled something positive to her, the same way every one of our coaches does when we see our girls giving their best effort. And then, at the end of practice, as we often do, I took her aside and told her how proud I was of her and how her attitude and her commitment to becoming a stronger runner was so obvious to everyone.
Well, I guess what I said meant something to her because she went home feeling great about herself. So much so that she asked her dad that night at dinner to start running with her on the weekends. And now who knows, maybe she’ll be the next great American distance runner. Stranger things have happened. Anyway, it’s proof that we generally get way more from people when we build them up, rather than cut them down.
See, words are funny things, they can sound totally harmless echoing around in your head, and then have a totally different quality as they leave your mouth and hit oxygenated air. I just think people sometimes forget the power that the spoken word has and how impactful they can be, especially on a child. And who those words come from is equally as important.
For instance, as a parent, I know all too well that I could give either of my daughters the most profound advice about relationships or school or work and it wouldn’t matter if every word I spoke was coated in edible leaf gold (like the kind you find at the bottom of a Goldschläger bottle), because no kid thinks their mom or dad knows what the hell they’re talking about. But have someone like their teacher or their coach or their boss say the exact same thing and now your kid is drooling over every word. So not fair.
My point is, those of us who coach or teach or parent or supervise anyone, in any capacity, always need to stay cognizant of the kind of power and influence our words have on the people around us. Because one insensitive comment can change the course of a person’s life. Like the mother who tells her daughter that she’s getting fat and then the poor girl becomes anorexic and has self-image issues for the rest of her life. You hear it on the news all the time.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that we all have a responsibility to the people around us to choose our words wisely because what you say and how you say it can be a game changer. So say whatever you have to say in a meaningful and sensitive way, because your opinion or advice or feedback may just have the power to change someone’s life. And if you have nothing nice to say, well, then shut up.
Lisa Sugarman lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Read and discuss all her columns at facebook.com/ItIsWhatItIsColumn. She is also the author of LIFE: It Is What It Is available on Amazon.com and select Whole Foods Market stores.