It was an arid way to live, and years ago I began to fight the constriction. A friend who knew me well gave me a toehold. "If you speak up, what's the worst thing that can happen? It couldn't kill you," she said, and it was as if someone had flicked on a light. I'd live, and a few experiments proved it. "But why didn't you tell me?" said another friend when I confessed to a hurt she'd caused, unknowingly. And again a light clicked on, and the conversation we had then had little to do with niceties and everything to do with understanding each other.
But I think the best lessons came when I had children, and I was determined my girls would have a voice for their thoughts and feelings. Certainly they started out that way, if you call rolling on the floor and shouting "You're not fair!" an effective way of communicating anger. And I was wary, afraid I'd utter something that would reverberate for years, that they'd point to me as the bad fairy whose ill-chosen words haunted their adulthoods. I even took courses in "parenting," which mostly had to do with saying what you meant, using "I" messages. How stilted it felt to say what one wanted. "I'm not happy when you draw on the wall." "It's important to me that you eat those peas." But the kids got the con immediately: "I hate it when you say those fakey things," announced the 6-year-old, who heard the fury behind the well-modulated sentences.
But as time went on, I discovered that being a parent brings feelings so close to the surface that they bubble through; whether love or fury, the words fly. For both the parent and the child, the membrane is thin, the thought becomes the word and with luck the word is chosen wisely. This morning, an hour after a noisy discussion on what 13-year-olds wear to school, a note was pushed under my bedroom door. In wobbly letters, it read "I say I hate you. But I really love you," and I marveled as I rushed to sweep my daughter up. My child was teaching me, as she was learning, too, that risking a word can lie at the very heart of the matter.
Catherine Calvert is a writer and editor who lives in London.
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