I never want to hear my kids say …

Posted April 11, 2010, at 9:20 p.m.

There are some things a mother never wants to overhear between her children. When the kids are young, this can be things like:

“Wow, Mom is going to be so mad at you when she sees this.”

“Oh my gosh, look at the toilet!”

“I just ate something off the stairs.”

“Don’t tell Dad.”

“Quick, hide it over there.”

“It wasn’t me.”

As the children get older and venture out on their own, mothers become even more paranoid about accidentally overhearing things they were better off not knowing. (Really, do you want to know what happened to that mailbox? And hadn’t your life been just fine without knowing who dented the car?) Even though my kids are still young, I know this parenting phenomenon to be true because I’ve watched the way my mom closes her eyes and puts a hand to her chest when she hears me or my brothers begin stories with, “Remember that time when …” or “I can’t believe we never got in trouble for … .”

Perhaps the worst thing a parent can overhear, however, is what her children say about their family in public or to other parents.

“My mom thinks you are … .”

“Mommy’s wearing Spanx under her dress.”

“We ate at fast food restaurants two times last week.”

“My dad thinks your … is … .”

Once, when Ford was little, he said out loud to a group of people that he wants to be choosy about whom he marries. “They will need to like the same things I like,” he said. And then, before we could stop him, he continued this verbal stream of consciousness to say that being married to one person for the rest of your life is a really big deal, and so you want to pick that person carefully because “you don’t want to be miserable.” Dustin and I glanced nervously at each other. Then Ford said, “Imagine coming home every day to a miserable wife.”

“I cannot even begin to imagine that,” Dustin said.

Sometimes you wonder where they come up with these things. Other times, it is quite clear. When Owen was a toddler, he told a new friend, “I had to wait in the car while my parents got married.” This wasn’t entirely true. Owen did wait in a car with my mom while I stood in my best friend’s wedding. But Dustin and I already had been married several years by then. On another occasion, Ford told a relative that he is “always” (a gross exaggeration) late for school because “my mom likes to sleep in.” I overslept one time when he was in kindergarten.

I thought my children had mostly outgrown this embarrassing stage when there is no such thing as a family secret until my neighbor Tony told me that our youngest son, Lindell, claimed to like Tony’s house better than ours because it is “calm and quiet.” (Never mind that Lindell is probably the loudest individual in our home.)

Luckily, however, it isn’t always us who our children embarrass. The other day, I helped Ford with a school writing assignment and noticed that he had used the word “might’ve.” This was uncharacteristic of Ford, who tends to favor proper English over slang or lazy contractions. I pointed to the word and said, “Can you think of a better way to write this? Does this look correct to you?”

Ford looked confused.

“Do you see this often in your books?” I asked. “You might hear people say ‘might have’ this way, but how often do you see it written as a contraction when it’s not part of dialogue?”

Ford’s face brightened even as he already was erasing the word. “Oh, I guess I was thinking of how Memaw [my mother] says things like ‘usetocould’ and ‘oughtta,’” he said.

I thought of my mother, who was raised in the South, had a career as a Navy wife (the old-school days when a service member was “graded” on his wife’s participation) and once sent my boys a book of “proper manners.” She would be exceptionally embarrassed to know that her grandson had quoted her as saying “usetocould.” The irony caused me to chuckle. I was glad that this time, at least, the joke wasn’t on me.

And then I read more of Ford’s writing assignment.

“My family is c-r-a-z-y!” he wrote. He went on to describe us as loud and semidysfunctional.

I gulped as I felt my ears burn with embarrassment. So long as we were on the topic of word choice and grammar, however, I used this opportunity to teach Ford another writing lesson:

“Crazy? What does that word mean to you, Ford? Isn’t it a little overused? Can’t you think of something more descriptive, more creative? How about, ‘My family is p-h-e-n-o-m-e-n-a-l’? Or ‘normal?’ Do you know that word?”

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Her book “I’m Just Saying …” is available wherever books are sold. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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