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What to Do When Your Kids Use Your Words Against You

One mom lists the parenting phrases that came back to haunt her

Published on: February 21, 2020

mom holding her shirt over her mouth looking worried

When we first become parents, many of us harbor secret dreams of future graduations, weddings and Grammy Award acceptance speeches (oh, just me?), moments when our offspring will publicly step into their actualized and amazing adult selves. We anticipate an intoxicating surge of parental pride when we can pat ourselves on the back for everything we’ve taught them, for guiding them to this point with our impeccable example.

And then those dreams go up on the shelf for a looooong time and we sometimes question who in their right mind ever let us raise children.

A couple of months ago, my son started interrupting us with an impatient (and rather saucy) “I know that!” My husband and I were puzzled. Where had this come from? A show he was watching? A friend at preschool? Up to this point in his life, we’ve kept the possibilities for malign influence to a minimum, so it remained a mystery for about a week.

Someone is always listening.

It’s utterly true what they say about little kids being sponges, absorbing everything around them. As my son’s verbal skills increase, my words are coming back to haunt me. And sometimes, they get me into trouble.

Phrases I have come to regret:

  • “I know that!”
  • “This is such a mess! You need to clean!”
  • “Don’t bite your fingers!”
  • “What’s that smell?”
  • “Did you poop?”
  • “Just take a breath!”
  • “You’re frustrated. Calm down!”

Anything that starts with:

  • “You need to …”
  • “Don’t …”
  • “Your father …”

However, one afternoon in the car while my husband was mansplaining something, I heard those very words fall from my own. two. lips: “I know that.” Oh. Oh no. A long moment of silence passed. Suddenly, wide-eyed, my husband stabbed a zealous finger at me:

“You! It was you!” His laughter almost drove us off the road while I was forced to confront the unsettling reality that it was, in fact, I who was the bad influence.

I was recently reminded of my power yet again during a kitchen standoff. Both sick, neither my son nor I were being our best selves. I was impatient and frustrated by his lack of listening. He looked me dead in the eye and said, with deep exasperation: “You need to calm down, okay? Take some breaths.”  There might have been an eye roll.

Well, I couldn’t really argue with him. I did need to calm down. I just didn’t expect my 4-year-old to be the one bringing it to my attention. And, since our roles are usually reversed in this scenario, it was uncomfortably obvious where he got that expression from. Although, I doubt I've ever said it to him like that … but, maybe I did?

The other day, my husband was Looking for Something, a daily ritual of frantic rifling through papers and clothes, followed by the inevitable (and slightly accusatory), “I can’t find my <keys, phone, hat, brain …>!”

My little mimic piped up: “Well, maybe you’re not looking hard enough!”

Uh oh. I’ve never said this out loud. True, I’ve muttered it through my breath, sotto voce, countless times, but I certainly didn’t consider that anyone was listening! This experience earned me a hard scowl from my husband, and has reinforced the reality that someone is always listening.

My son is a 3.5-foot-tall Big Brother, and since as a work-at-home mom I spend the most time with him, guess who most of his material comes from?

I’ve started questioning and censoring everything I say, terrified of the next moment I will hear it all reflected back to me from the mouth of our sassy preschooler.

What-ifs start to flood my brain as I frantically search back through my words — have I said anything else that can potentially embarrass me? What if we arrive at a playdate with a new friend only for my son to loudly declare, “This place is a mess!” or what if he disdainfully sniffs the air in the doctor’s office and says, “Phew! Who farted?” These are distinct possibilities.

They say parenting brings perspective, but I’m not sure I like this overly honest and hyper-critical perspective of myself. It’s definitely not good for my anxiety.

Everyone else in my family (mostly my husband) thinks that this new chapter in our parenting adventure is hilarious, and I can appreciate that it is pretty funny (although would be funnier at someone else’s expense). Thus, I’m faced with a choice: I can live in trepidation of what my son will say next, or, in the words of the mighty Elsa, I can, “let it go.”

As humbling as it will inevitably be, I’m consciously deciding to just be myself in front of my son, to be confident in my best intentions, accept that I’m not perfect — that no one is perfect — and that on some level my son is absorbing the good stuff along with the cringe-worthy. In fact, I should probably celebrate that, yes, I actually do influence my strong-willed child (although not usually in the ways I intend).

Also, on the very bright side, at this point any embarrassment is still fleeting. He hasn’t learned how to write. Yet.

But I will pray that it’s his father who first drops the F-bomb in front of him.

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