Parents: choose carefully the words you use when talking to your kids. There is one word in particular that I would like to ban from a parent’s vocabulary. I have no doubt that by using it parents are well-meaning and trying to be helpful, but I want to draw to your attention how I’ve seen the use of this word create lifelong, relational gaps between parents and their grown children.
What is the word? “Disappointed.” As in “I’m very disappointed in you, young man.”
I understand that parents are using this word as a way to express their displeasure at a child’s behavior — in hopes of correcting it. But the problem is that the child hears something the parents likely don’t intend. They hear “You’re a disappointment to me.” It becomes about the child’s worth as a person, rather than about a poor choice he made or a parent’s unmet expectation. It’s the same as saying, “You’re never good enough for me” or “You don’t measure up to my expectations” or “You’ll never amount to anything.”
I’m not suggesting parents can’t comment on a child’s poor behavior or unmet expectations. I’m not saying parents should stuff their feelings. I also admit that it can be motivating for kids to know that their parent doesn’t like what they did. But what I am saying is that when parents express disapproval of behaviors they need to be very careful to keep behavior and personal worth separate, affirming their relationship and affection for the child.
Why am I so adamant about this? Because I’ve heard story after story from grown children who are grieving over the way their parents have always been disappointed in them. One college-age girl recently said to me on the phone, “I wish I could tell my mom what I’m thinking about here at college, but I can’t — because I know she won’t approve of me. I’m such a disappointment to her.” Some adult kids have told me they dread coming home to their parents’ house. Some won’t even talk to their parents anymore — it’s just too painful. I once taught a parenting class at our local pregnancy support center and and not one of the twelve there could share of a single incident where they felt their parents affirmed them as people. How sad.
So my encouragement is for parents to take more care in how they express concern over a child’s choices or unmet expectations. Try a script like this: “I’m glad I’m your dad even though you did something that I didn’t like. I want you to know that my love for you doesn’t change a bit because of this. I believe in you and in your ability to make good choices in life. How about we talk about this some more over some ice cream?”
You won’t be disappointed!