Mind Matters — Words and the Family

Don’t get me wrong, my mother was a great woman and the quintessential grandmother. However, there was one time I recall when I, as a new Mom, stopped her in her tracks. Elaboration here: I thwarted her from going down those tried—yet often untrue—tracks of family mythology.

Every family has a set of unwritten rules about how to live, how to think, how to feel. Some of those unwritten scripts are, of course, necessary. We hope to learn from our families how to have good hygiene, how to be polite, and how to manage the words, “thank you” and “please” from an early age. Just by observing adults, especially parents, children learn to model behaviors for good or ill. I loved mimicking my mother’s smoking, holding candy cigarettes with aplomb. Luckily, I hated the smell of the secondary smoke and, so, am a non-smoker.

If we are fortunate, we feel loved as children and will thereby learn to love ourselves and others.

Yet, even surrounded by love, families make mistakes. You can bet I made plenty as a Mom. Being a mother and psychologist/family therapist is a double-edged sword: I have made parenting mistakes and observe myself at the same time, either at that moment or afterwards. Trust me, I “analyze” myself as much as I “analyze” the behaviors of anyone else!

Well, back to the incident with my Mother, many years ago. My daughter was a toddler, new to walking. One day, when my daughter had tripped and fallen, my Mother said, “Oh, you’re so clumsy!” she may have said it “cutely” but the words burned for me. I promptly spoke up to the attentive grandmother and requested she not label my daughter as “clumsy.”

My mother retorted, “Well, I called you that too, and probably my mother called me that as well!” I replied, “Yes, Mom, I know you said that to me, but the buck stops here. This kind of labeling gets a child stuck and limits her. Keep telling a little one she is clumsy, she’ll begin to believe it and not move into the world with confidence.”

I don’t know if those were my exact words, but it was the essence of my narrative that day, almost 35 years ago. Point is, words and labels get passed down from generation to generation and can impart a negative emotional load on an individual into adulthood.

We need to reflect on the words we use, unconscious of their possible consequences. Do our words have a long history in our family of origin? Are they derogatory, hurtful, limiting, in any way? Are they creating self-fulfilling prophecies? If we call a child stupid, lazy, spoiled, clumsy, and so on, repeatedly, a child can then internalize those labels and eventually create a negative self-image.

This is not to say that the child does not need discipline, boundaries, and firm guidance. Yes, behaviors need correction.

What has prompted my reflection on the theme of words and labels passed from one generation to the next is that the little toddler who fell in the story is now going to have a baby daughter herself. And she is a rock climber among other things!

So how will I, as a grandmother, and my daughter, as a mother, learn to edit out whatever vestiges of family history that are limiting? What other words, besides “clumsy,” need to be stricken from the “label” train that rides that tired—yet untrue—track of family mythology? This is a question for all parents and grandparents.