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StorkNet presents . . . Celia Straus'
Prayers On My Pillow > Columns > Celia Straus ~ Prayers on My Pillow

The Power of Your Words
by Celia Straus

"At this young age, one truth I know
Words said in anger are like a blow
Like weapons aimed to pierce the heart
Each one tears our soul apart."

From Prayers On My Pillow by Celia Straus

Late one afternoon, two years ago my beautiful, gentle, intelligent sophomore in high school comes home, throws herself on the sofa in my office and starts to weep. Turns out she's not being invited to a surprise birthday party thrown by two friends for a third, all of whom are part of the popular "in" crowd, a group of girls who turn alternately hot and cold on Julia, depending on whim. But that's not really why she's weeping. It takes another ten minutes of discussion before the real reason comes out, the reason that, for a moment, breaks my heart. The real reason is the humiliation and overwhelming anxiety she feels at lunchtime when she trips over something and drops an open carton of milk on the floor of the cafeteria. This is, needless to say, no big deal to anyone but her. A couple of kids giggle, one calls her a klutz, Julia calls herself a klutz A friend even offers to help her wipe it up. As she tells me this story, sobbing, wiping her eyes with the corner of the quilted crib blanket I use as a throw over the thread barren sofa, I'm thinking, "Okay, kiddo, you do know that you are 'crying over spilt milk' and you've got to get a grip and keep things in proportion."

Then the kicker comes. ".and that's the trouble with me," she is saying, "I always feel horrible when I do something stupid like that. Especially spilling something, Mom, because, do you remember when I was little, really little, in our old kitchen when I spilled my milk and Dad got so mad? Well, I can still hear him calling me 'stupid' and 'clumsy.' I'm always trying to please people, mommy.everyone. I'm always trying to figure out what to do next to make them like me. But no matter what I do it's never enough, because look, they didn't even invite me to the party. I'm just stupid and clumsy no matter what I do."

My heart sinks. I do remember when she spilled the milk because, to be honest, her father, my husband, whom we both love very much, got, gets, will continue to get irritated and impatient when any of us spill something, or make a silly mistake, or don't buy his special brand of orange juice that was on the grocery list, for "chrissakes" but is forgotten anyway. You get the picture. I know, I know.confront him, get him to change, deal with the dis-functionality, the co-dependence, but that's another column and I'm telling you this to make another point. And that day, when she was maybe three, Julia dropped her plastic "Bert and Ernie" mug, and, for whatever reason he called her "stupid" and "clumsy." And his words hurt.they "pierced her heart".they "tore her soul apart."

I remember one time, there were many, when my father wounded me with words. You're asking yourself, "did she marry her father?" I was twenty-three, and was about to stop teaching Junior High English in Montgomery County, Maryland and go to live in Europe with the man I loved. My father, a "dyed in the wool" military officer, didn't approve. That night, when I had come over for dinner, and was in fact, having a good time, dancing around the kitchen to something by The Who while my mother and I prepared the meal, he came in and announced out of the blue, "You're useless. You'll never amount to anything," then walked out and didn't say another word to me. I was devastated, bewildered, humiliated, heartbroken. You can't imagine how many times, to this day, twenty-five years later, his words "pierce my heart." I love him. He loves me. Julia loves her Dad. He loves her. But the power of words, positive or negative, is huge and long-lasting.

In "Bambi" Thumper's mother tells him, after he's observed that Bambi is a little clumsy on the ice, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." Think about applying that nonjudgmental advice to your children. If you consider words as "blessings" as Mimi Doe says in her invaluable book, 10 Principles for Spiritual Parenting, if you hold yourself accountable for what you say, you'll be far more careful and caring when you communicate with your little ones. Positive, affirming, loving words nourish your child more than any meal ever will. Positive words give your child faith and hope and optimism. Negative angry words, especially judgmental reactions to a child's behavior, spoken however thoughtlessly or in haste, can never be reverse, restated, rewritten, rethought, retrieved. They are like bullets, tearing the soul apart.

Using words to grow a child is one of the most powerful parenting tools we have. Start by thinking about how you phrase your communications. Could you substitute "yes" in a way you can live with instead of automatically saying "no?" Numerous studies have been done on the hundreds of thousands of times a child hears "no" in his or her young life over just the few thousands of times they hear "yes." Consider your tone, your facial expression and body language. Often that martyred "sigh" of resignation that accompanies your "yes" is worse than a "no." I'm guilty of this one as recently as last night. I left off answering my email to drive Emily and a friend (both thirteen) to a nearby restaurant. I'd agreed, said yes, said yes, said yes, and then, when asked to take responsibility for my words, heaved a sigh that could have been heard down the block! There is a way to use words and underline them with joy and love that is so simple that we could recite the phone book to our children and they would flourish. In fact, I used to do practically just that! Julia and Emily and I would talk gibberish to each other for hours using tone, facial expressions and gestures to get our meaning across. It was an instantaneous and clear way to prove to all of us how the power of words is not the letters that make them up but the way they are expressed.

The prayers I wrote each day for Julia and Emily were words to and for their souls. simple verses, one step away in complexity from "green eggs and ham" but always affirmations about how loved and loving they were. I took words and organized them into what Buddhists call "metta:" powerful phrases of loving kindness. Often these "mettas" were in response to words used in negative and destructive ways like the ones that haunt Julia. The verse introducing this column comes from a prayer I wrote after they had been squabbling, fighting, using words as weapons. I think it was over clothes. Early in the morning, silly arguments over who is wearing whose T-shirt or sweater or who took the moisturizer and left it at school or whose sweat band is in the athletic bag can quickly escalate into battles of words that linger on long after they've left the house. This could be due to the early morning hour - another reason schools ought to allow teenagers to start classes later than 7:45 am. Here is the entire prayer-poem.

Dear Lord, help me understand
What makes us fight
What makes us snarl
What makes us snipe
What makes us circle round and round
Like wolves defending their own ground.

Dear Lord, help me understand
What makes us mean,
What makes us sharp
What makes us scream
What makes us find each other's faults
So that our anger somersaults.

Dear Lord, please help me find a way
To keep from fighting every day
At this young age, one truth I know
Words said in anger are like a blow
Like weapons aimed to pierce the heart
Each one tears our souls apart
Then armed with understanding clear
I'll act from love instead of fear.

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