The words we use in everyday life dictate how we engage with others, helping us to function as polite members of society. For example, when trying to sneak past someone blocking an exit, ‘excuse me’ as opposed to ‘move Bitch’ is much more likely to illicit the appropriate response. Equally, when needing to convey a message of some delicacy, the words we use carry great importance. For example, calling someone who is carrying a couple extra kilos ‘chunky’ (no matter how close the relationship) is never good. And these lessons of diplomacy, like many life lessons, start when we are young.
We teach our children the value of words. ‘Use your words,’ we say usually as said child yells, stomps, kicks, hits, or throws offending item. Self-expression is important, but is better done through words as sticks and stones will break bones. (Though, of course, words can be incredibly hurtful). There are curt little phrases that seem to allow normally unacceptable gossip or rudeness to pass muster – ‘I don’t mean to be unkind…’ or, my brother’s favourite: ‘I’m just saying’ (as if simply stating a fact frees you from causing offence). ‘You’re a jerk,’ is easily softened with a simple, ‘no, I’m just saying.’ Of course, kids don’t require any kind of buffering to get their message across. I love their blunt questioning – ‘why are you so fat?’ Or my new favourite: a pre-schooler to a woman wearing fashionably ripped jeans, ‘don’t you know how to sew?’
And sometimes we don’t mean what we say (and this is where it gets tricky). Be it reverse psychology – my mother to my pre-schooler, ‘Don’t give Gram a hug! Don’t you dare give Gram a hug,’ said with open arms – Or, empty threats – ‘That’s it! We’re leaving without you,’ parent slowly walking away while toddler remains fixed, eyeing off the closest coin-operated car (now costing $3 – no wonder we are on the brink of an economic downturn!) Or, sometimes, it is purely about winning.
Our three-year-old, who is notorious for getting out of bed about twenty times a night, received a Toy Story Woody doll for his birthday (or ‘Oody’ as he affectionately calls him). He took to the doll straight away, lugging Oody and his accessory, a hard, plastic cowboy hat around everywhere. Sometimes in teaching kids the beauty of cause and consequence, it can be hard to identify the X-factor – the ideal currency in which to manage behaviour with the threat of taking away some prized or cherished possession. Finally, we had the X-factor.
One night, after the continuous tucking in became beyond irritating, here is how this played out:
Daddy: ‘If you get up again, I’ll give Oody to another little boy.’
Three-year-old: ‘Oody…? Another little boy?’
Clearly having regained the reins of power, Daddy flaunts his newly discovered key to the awaiting parental bliss of sleeping children and thus followed by adult TV containing much sex and violence.
Daddy: ‘Would you like me to give Oody to another little boy?’
Three-year-old: ‘Yeah. Give Oody to another little boy.’