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Wishing you could take back words

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It’s not easy being a parent. In fact, sometimes it’s downright frustrating, like when you have to correct your child for the same behavior over and over.”

These were the opening sentences for the first Mother’s Day column I wrote. It’s been three years and I still feel the same. Of course, there are two sides to every story. It’s not easy being a child, either. In fact, sometimes it’s downright frustrating, like when your parents continue to nag you over and over.

I’m sure all parents have given the “think before you speak” speech. Jessie, my 10-year-old daughter, has heard this speech a few times, with a special emphasis on “it’s not just what you say, but how you say it.” But, whether you’re a kid or an adult, we’ve all been there, wishing we could take back words or deliver them over with a different tone.

Prior to a recent corrective-action discussion (Jessie calls them lectures), I had a flashback to my sixth grade days. I hadn’t thought about this story in years – maybe I blocked it out. But it’s a perfect story of a 12-year-old boy not learning the “think before you speak” rule. After this experience, though, I had a much firmer grasp of the concept.

Near the end of our school day, we were supposed to be working. However, the second-grade class played dodge ball in the courtyard outside our window. The teacher, Mrs. Dowd, instructed us to focus on our work, not the second graders. I’m not sure what the teacher said next, but smart-alecky me, trying to get a laugh, raised my hand and said, “I’ll go out and play with them.” Needless to say, my response didn’t sit well with Mrs. Dowd. She gave me two choices, march down to the principal’s office or head outside to play with the second graders. Since playing sounded much better than bending over and grabbing my ankles, as principals spanked during my school years, I chose dodge ball. I won’t forget my embarrassment when I had to explain to the second-grade teacher why I crashed her students’ game of dodge ball.

When second-grade recess ended, I walked back into my classroom. Had I learned my lesson? I’m sure I was trying to save face with my classmates when I told my teacher, “That was fun. I’d do that again.” I’ve never won an award for being a quick learner, but I did realize at that point I had just forced Mrs. Dowd to intensify my training.

“Okay then, the next time we have recess, you can stay in to work, and then go out with the second-grade class for their recess.” By that point in time, the light bulb in my brain flickered with the notion that maybe I should keep my smart mouth shut.

It’s good this happened near the end of the school day, because my stomach felt like it had taken a direct hit from a dodge ball. Somehow, though, I kept it together until I made it home. Then I cried. During supper that evening, more tears flowed as I told my parents what happened and begged them to, “Please talk to my teacher so she doesn’t make me play with the second graders again.” Of course, in my heart I knew my parents would never try to get me out of a punishment I richly deserved (and they didn’t).

Luckily for me, Mrs. Dowd never followed through on her plan, and I gained a valuable lesson on the line between humor and disrespect. It seems obvious, but we all have to learn the importance of the timing, tone, and content of our words, and that sometimes silence is golden. I try to share this with Jessie to spare her the pain of learning it the hard way like I did.

Jessie is likely in for more lectures in the tween and teen years ahead. I’ll try to deliver them without nagging, but I’m likely to fail. Remember, I’m not a quick learner. As often as I can, though, I’ll share my own childhood experiences so she’ll know I was once in her shoes. I hope she’ll listen to my carefully spoken words.

Thanks to the parents who teach their children all kinds of lessons, sometimes repeatedly. May all of us remember to conclude our corrective-action discussions with three important words that apply to every lecture topic, “I love you.”

Until next month, remember to cherish the moments. Happy Mother’s Day!

Patrick Hempfing had a 20-year professional career in banking, accounting, and auditing before he became a father at age 44. He is now a full-time husband, stay-at-home dad, and writer. Follow Patrick at www.facebook.com/patricklhempfing and on Twitter @PatrickHempfing.

Updated 4:38 pm, December 9, 2016
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