Parents of teenagers walk a tightrope—or they should anyway when it comes to the words they choose to use when communicating to and about their beloved offspring. Both of us can recall moments frozen in time when our tongues outran our brains and stinging words spilled out before the mind had time to throw up a red flag. “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!” “Will you ever act your age?” “God gave you a brain—why don’t you use it!” “So why don’t you move out and see how long you last on your own!”
Tom recalls an incident years ago when one of his teen-age daughters snapped at him in a sarcastic tone. He grabbed her by the arm. “Who do you think you are!” he said angrily. Caught off guard and totally intimidated, she returned meekly, “Nobody.” That single word in response to his dented ego is a moment he will never forget. When he heard his daughter describe herself as—“nobody”—he beat himself up the rest of the evening and for a long time afterwards. Believe it or not, he still winces in pain and some shame when he thinks back to that moment. Once he said what he said, it was too late to withdraw it. It was etched in memory and is part of family history.
A mother recently told us that, in her opinion, the reverse is also true. Too much praise, too many superlatives about anything a child says or does—regardless of whether it is merited or not—can become ineffective to the point of meaningless. A son’s presentation in church isn’t always fantastic. A daughter’s solo may not be wonderful. A child’s grade just may not be good enough.
So how direct or honest should we be toward our teenager? Should we be concerned about bruising a tender young ego? Should we pull our verbal punches if we think they will hurt too much? Or should we view frankness as a way of preparing our kids for a brutally frank, in-your-face world?
We are reminded of the times our own children played softball or soccer. Everyone got a trophy, win or lose, because everyone is a winner. But for every winner, the hard, cold fact is that there is a loser. When do we keep the trophies and plaques and praise under wraps until they signify something more than simply trying hard. Is trying hard the same as being the best at something? So much of how we criticize or praise is in the tone, the timing and the words we choose.
We’re not about to let our teenagers off the hook. The same thing holds true for them and for their interactions with their friends, teachers, bosses—and parents. It’s never too early, mom and dad, to teach children about the nuanced meaning of words. You can’t put toothpaste back into the tube. Words are like that.