Careful What You Say—Especially To Kids…
Your Words Could Make A Huge Difference In Someone’s Life, For Better Or For Worse.
Written by Rich Harshaw.
I’m either allergic to AC/DC, the rock band, or celery. I’m not quite sure which.
On February 2, 1982, my parents inexplicably let me go to an AC/DC concert with my older brother at Reunion Arena in Dallas. By today’s parenting standards, this would have been a Top-10-All-Time-Worst-Parenting-Decision worthy of a CPS custody hearing. But the early ‘80s were a different era; specifically, one of parenting naivety. Nancy Reagan hadn’t implored anyone to “Just Say No” yet. We didn’t even have cable, so we were still watching Brady Bunch and Leave It To Beaver reruns, not MTV. Apparently it never occurred to my parents that an AC/DC concert might be a marijuana-fest of epic proportions for most of the 15,000+ crazed teenagers in attendance.
Then there was poor little me. And by little, I mean that at age twelve, I was a whopping 4’ 6” and eighty-two pounds. Maybe less. My ticket said I had a $4 seat in the upper balcony, but thanks to my brother’s artistic skills and a cheap set of markers purchased from Albertsons on the way the show, I “magically” found myself with an authentic-looking hand stamp that got me access to the floor. Not having a reserved seat on the floor turned out to be a non-issue; as soon as the lights dimmed, the entire throng “rushed the stage” and I found myself pinned between three thousand drunk and high lunatics and the stage. I spent the next two hours fighting for my life as I stared straight up at Angus Young—no more than six feet away from me—through a haze of reefer smoke thick enough to choke Cheech and Chong. It’s a wonder I wasn’t crushed, asphyxiated, or both.
The stress of the event and the enormous quantity of second-hand reefer I surely must have inhaled left me terrified, exhausted… and curiously… with a severe rash all over my upper torso and arms. As I tried to figure out what had caused the rash, I thought back to dinner at my house before we left for the concert; I had eaten a couple pieces of raw celery, which had triggered a tiny itch in my throat. In my stupid twelve-year old brain, I was convinced the raw celery was the source of an allergy that caused the rash—even though I’d eaten celery dozens of times before with no ill effects. I was so traumatized that I have never eaten another piece of raw celery since. Not one.
Funny how the mind of a child selectively remembers things and draws conclusions based on flimsy evidence, isn’t it? Which isn’t all that big of a deal if the flimsy conclusion is to quit eating celery. It wasn’t really one of my favorites before February 2, 1982 anyway.
But what if the stakes are higher—like issues of self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-image?
Did you realize that the smallest, most seemingly insignificant comment could unknowingly send a kid—or an adult for that matter—down a road that could change his or her life forever? For better or for worse?
Evidently a little neighborhood boy, Chad Kubat, told my wife she had elephant legs when she was only six-years-old. She worried about her weight pretty much from that day forward. Thirty plus years later she still remembers that mean-spirited comment. One little comment.
Of course, kids are just mean to each other sometimes, and they’re going to say mean things. That’s just life. But what about when adults get in on the “one little comment” act?
My mother came home humiliated from “Meet The Teacher Night” when I was in the fourth grade. She had waited patiently in line while my teacher, Mrs. Mitchell, heaped praise on the parents of my classmates for everything from book smarts to penmanship to good behavior. When my mom finally got to the front of the line, she was informed that “Richie Harshaw is the worst kid I’ve ever had in my entire teaching career,” which was saying a lot, because she was really old. I knew that my best friend Lance and I always had a lot of fun causing Mrs. Mitchell grief—but now it was official: I was the worst kid in the history of teaching. Ouch.
From that day forward, based on the flimsy evidence of that one comment, I never really tried very hard in school. After all, I was the worst kid in the history of school, and that was a pretty big reputation to live up to. So I focused my efforts on terrorizing Mrs. Simms and her student teacher Miss Ostrich in 5th grade, Miss Lemming in 6th grade, Miss Dewey in 7th grade, Mrs. Moore in 8th grade, Mrs. Sessions in 9th grade, and Mrs. Abrego in 10th grade. My grades were mostly B’s with a few A’s sprinkled in, mostly from the fear of my dad grounding me for life if my grades slipped down to C level. My “citizenship” and “self-discipline” scores, however, always came in at a suspect “N” (needs improvement) or damning “U” (unsatisfactory). Fortunately for me, dad apparently only looked at the scholastic side of the report card.
Then seven years later in a moment of Andy Dufresne redemption, Mrs. White, my 11th grade math teacher, changed the course of my life again. Same as before, it happened during Parent-Teacher night at the school. But this time, my teacher gave a different report. Apparently, Mrs. White told my mother that she noticed that I never took notes in class or seemed to study much, but I always got a good solid B anyway. She told my mother she thought I was a bright and intelligent student and with just a little bit of effort, I could make straight A’s.
I can honestly tell you that the thought of getting straight A’s had never crossed my mind before that moment. And guess what? It stuck. I never got another B for the rest of my high school career. My freshmen year in college I got a 3.91 GPA, and earned a scholarship because of it. I didn’t even know you could get scholarships after you got to college. But I did—thanks to Mrs. White’s seemingly flimsy little word of encouragement.
I could give more examples—like the time I overheard Doug Jensen’s dad tell somebody at halftime of one of my youth league basketball games “That little Richie is one heckuva ballplayer.” For a kid half a head shorter than the next shortest kid on the floor, that flimsy little comment cemented a confidence in that sport that lasted three decades. Or the football coach in 6th grade who teased me mercilessly about being the “Next great Mormon quarterback like Danny White” to the point where I quit three weeks into the season and never played again. Ever. You’ve probably got your own set of examples.
Do you have kids? Do you work with kids in sports or scouts or church?
Your words will have a profound impact on how these kids feel about themselves and the world for years to come. The old adage “Measure twice, cut once” is particularly salient in this context. Look for opportunities to genuinely encourage, genuinely compliment, and genuinely praise. I’m not talking about that fake “everybody gets a trophy even if you and your team sucks just so your self-esteem will be bolstered” encouragement. I’m talking about genuine encouragement.
In 2005, I attended Boy Scout camp for a couple days with my oldest son, Sam. I got there just before dinner on a Tuesday—the second day of a five-day camp for the boys—and while waiting to go in the mess hall, met a thirteen-year-old boy from another troop who went by the nickname “Pinky.” He earned the nickname because of a pink bandana that he liked to wear on his head.
It was painfully obvious that Pinky had been given a heck of a reputation to live up to. He was doing a fine job of being an obnoxious jerk—the center of attention in a negative way. I talked to him for a few minutes and immediately perceived he was a critical moment in his life at age thirteen—should he grow up to be a loudmouthed screw-up… or a decent, respectable, productive human being?
At dinner, Pinky’s troop was sitting at the table right next to ours. One of the kids in my troop took an empty milk carton, closed it tight, and stepped on it, causing a loud boom to echo through the dining hall. Truth be told, it was pretty funny—but to do my duty as an adult leader, I loudly said to the table, “Gentlemen, gentlemen. Please. Control yourselves.” (Okay, I admit it. What I said was an inside joke with the boys; apparently one of the other adults had said that the day before when another kid had stomped a milk carton, and the boys started to say it in a mocking tone. Personally, I would never say “Gentlemen, gentlemen, please!”)
What happened next, though, was extremely telling about Pinky. His troop leader had automatically assumed it was he who had stomped the carton, and had also assumed that I was serious (and upset) when I had admonished the boys to control themselves. The scoutmaster immediately banished Pinky from the dining hall, and offered a profuse apology for Pinky’s behavior and explained that he was a troublemaker and they were having a hard time controlling him. Really? He didn’t even do anything.
I immediately turned my attention to this young man—recognizing that his own adult leaders were more like the Mormon-hating football coach that the intelligence-spotting 11th grade math teacher. I went and found him and got to know him a little bit. He hated scouts but had gone to camp because his grandmother—who he lived with—had forced him to go. He couldn’t remember how he got the nickname Pinky, but he wore the bandana so everyone would think that had something to do with it. I invited Pinky to hang out with our troop that night (with his scoutmaster’s relieved permission) instead of his own. We played dodgeball, had a campfire, and told jokes and ghost stories. He made friends with some of our boys who didn’t know his reputation. We all kind of liked him. And it was obvious he liked being in this new, safer environment.The next day I had to leave, but I returned on Friday for the camp’s closing ceremony. Before I came back I went to the mall and found a vintage Dr. Pepper T-shirt and bought it for Pinky as a gift. When I saw him on Friday, I gave him the shirt, told him to remove the pink bandana, and in the spirit of Saul of Tarsus, I told him that I was hereby changing his nickname from Pinky to Pepper and from that day forward he no longer had to be everybody’s whipping boy. Stand tall, and go forth and do good I told him.
Pepper didn’t know it, but I saw his address on the tag on his backpack and made a note of it. A month later I sent him a short letter in the mail simply encouraging him and telling him he could have whatever he wanted out of life. He sent me a note back in the mail thanking me for the encouragement, and telling me how he was enjoying his new nickname. I’ve never heard from or corresponded with him since.
Did it make a difference in his life? I’d like to think so.
So think about your relationships. Whether it be with your kids, somebody else’s kids, your spouse, your neighbors or your co-workers. What can you say that will encourage? What can you say that will build confidence? And what can you NOT say that might have a damaging effect? Because you never know—they might not remember the exact date—but they’ll remember the words and how they felt.
Remember. Measure twice, cut once.
And Chad Kubat, if you’re out there, you can suck it.
© 2014 – 2016, Rich Harshaw. All rights reserved.