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The Power of Mommytalk

Last night, my 20-year-old boy (who’s currently a million miles away) and I had the most hilarious Viber conversation recounting famous Mommy words of wisdom he remembers issuing forth from my mouth during various moments of his growing-up years.

Mommytalk, otherwise known as Mommyisms: They’re little pearls of parental statements, little nuggets that issue forth from the mouths of all moms. Present in all variations – single words, hanging phrases, full sentences – we use them to remind, correct, discipline, guide, and sometimes even just express ourselves at moments when we find ourselves hanging on a thin thread of sanity as our kids push us to the edge of our patience. Mommyisms slip out of our mouths unbidden, often subconsciously rising from dormant repositories of words our own mothers told us, bequeathed to them in turn by their own mothers.

Mommyisms have a wonderful ability to bind families across the world. The common statements (“What? You say that too?”) tie mothers together in a sisterhood of wombs, a club of women struggling to raise our children as best as we know how. Mommyisms tie our children together, too, as the recipients of these oft-repeated statements (“What? Your mom said that, too?”). Which makes me think: Mommytalk must be universal, no? If moms across continents are saying practically the same things to their kids, then there must be common experiences that we all go through in spite of differences that run the gamut from geographical locations to color of skin. Mommyisms stand as evidence not only of a collective desire to care for and raise our children properly (including a shared experience of the struggle that sometimes entails), but also of universal truths behind the words of wisdom, and therefore universal lessons in life that we feel the need to pass on to our children and their children’s children as well.

You know the saying “Out of the mouths of babes…” Now it’s time to consider the bits of wisdom that come out of the mouths of moms… and perhaps we’ll end up sharing a laugh or two while we exclaim to each other, “What? You, too?”

“Look with your eyes, not with your mouth.”

This is the typical response when our child loses something he loves, spends precisely one minute looking for it, and the next minute assaults us with a whine that pronounces the search as a hopeless, dire one. (And often, when they do look with their eyes, aided sometimes by our eyes, too, the hopelessly-lost object transforms into miraculously-found).

“Do you know how many people are starving in the world?”

In some countries, it’s Brussels sprouts. In my home, it’s mung beans and any kind of boiled fish. In any form, it’s food that the kids would rather hide under their plates than spoon into their mouth. And this is the guilt trip we give them to ensure that they put their food where their mouth is. I’m not entirely sure if it’s a logical statement at all or if in the end it’s simply obedience that makes them eat what they’d rather not, but it works!  Hail, one of the most brilliant examples of non sequitur!

“What part of ‘No’ don’t you understand?”

The typical response to repeated requests for permission to do something or go somewhere that we just happen to not be giving to the requesting party. 

“When I was your age…”

This is the famous preface that precedes an emphatic recollection of the golden days when we either had more respect or less privileges, with the underlying objective of letting our kids know just how grateful they should be that they have what they have or that we’re not punishing them the way we were in the olden days. It’s really more a long-winded way of saying, “Count your blessings, kid.” 

“If the wind blows, that look is going be stuck on your face forever.”

Okay, so this is so not true. But it works, especially when your kid is crossing his eyes or making monkey faces for the nth time. It made us stop when our mothers said it, right? It must work. 

 “Because I said so.”

The end to all arguments. Full stop. And as with all things potent, this one only retains its power if used very sparingly.

Then there are my own famous words that, through sheer repetition from Child 1 to Child 5, have become part of our family’s repository of Mom’s Quotable Quotes:

Parents have a great responsibility to use the right words to say to their kids, because these words transform into an essential part of who they are

“Did you forget to say your morning prayers?”

My typical response when one of my boys is in a rotten mood early in the morning, or two of them have found themselves in a heated argument early in the day. It’s a successful reminder that often things don’t go right when the first priority – offering all that happens in the day up to God – has been overlooked.

“A watched pot never boils.”

My unemotional, steady-voiced retort to a whine that signals impatience, typically of the variety of “Are we there yet?” or “When are they arriving?” or “When will I get it?” (I’ve heard my own sons tell this to each other, so there must be some life-proven truth behind its repetition).

“This is not a threat. It’s a warning. And it will happen.”

This is the final cap to a statement of what will happen if a particular behavior isn’t ended quickly. Exhibit A: “If you don’t stop annoying each other, I’m going to make each of you stand in a corner. (Apply the final cap here).” Believe me, it works. But only if you’re ready to carry through with the warning should they insist on carrying on the behavior.

“When this reaches five, you know what will happen.”

Kind of related to the above, this one is accompanied by a finger that rises from a closed hand for every count. At the count of five, all fingers will be open, and a spanking hand appears. To this day, I can count on my hands the very few times I’ve resorted to spanking, and each time it has only been done in the direst of circumstances, often when a child is at the brink of danger. (I still remember spanking my eldest boy’s hand when he was about to stick his fingers into an electrical outlet). So I don’t use this one too often, but my kids remember it well… perhaps because precisely it’s a statement used very sparingly.

“Using bad words just tells everyone you don’t have a good command of language.”

For a family of word-lovers, to be unable to express oneself well borders on being the ultimate insult. Which is exactly what I want them to think about the use of vulgar language: It is an insult to everyone, both the deliverer and the recipient. My boys know that if there is something anyone wants to say about anything, especially when it’s a statement uttered in a high emotional state, then there are always proper and refined words to use.

“… when you have hair in your underarms.”

When my boys were young and impatient to try out something (along the lines of “When can I sleep over in their house?” or “When can I go swimming alone without a lifeguard in the pool?”), this was how I’d tell them to wait. Granted it’s a little extreme; I could have just as easily said, “When you’re older.” But somehow using a physical, observable, visual point in time is not only hilarious for them but also very real and relatable. And it has always worked.

“We should have some ice cream now.” 

The ultimate response to the aftermath of a breakdown. I’m a firm believer in the healing power of ice cream: There’s nothing, no heartbreak, no tearful fight, no heated argument, that can’t be salved by the comforting balm of ice cream.

“Don’t let you compliment your beauty. Let your beauty compliment you.”

This one is an original from my mom, imparted to my siblings and me from a very young age, and which I have passed on to my children as well. There comes a time in every growing child’s life when they worry about their hair, their skin, the arrival of zits, the perceived weight gain or weight loss… and we simply have to remind them that the outside isn’t what really matters. The outside can be changed anytime, by forces both within and beyond our control. Besides, beauty on the outside is too dependent on the eyes of the beholder. But the inside – the heart, the kindness, the good will – that’s what remains consistent throughout, and it’s what constitutes true beauty. The beauty of soul, that’s what must be cultivated, cared for, developed. Then the outside covering is simply a bonus to the beauty of a soul that shines with love for God.

Going back to that Viber conversation with my son last night: As he was recounting yet another story of his adventures abroad, he said, “And then, Mom, I realized right then and there, that what I was saying to my friend was exactly the same thing you always said to us while we were growing up!” 

As we laughed over it, in my head I could almost hear it: One of my usual statements, beginning in my voice and ending in his. And at that moment, I had this great epiphany:  We as parents have a very great responsibility to use the right words as we bring up our kids, because these words silently seep into their souls, transforming into an essential part of who they are and what they stand for. 

That’s a pretty compelling power to hold in our hands. And with all great power comes great responsibility.

And like mommyisms that are passed on from one generation to the next, the values and principles innately contained in our words have the uncanny ability to last not just for the duration of our lifetime but for the rest of those that follow ours. So the next time we utter one of them, let’s make sure that they contain not just wisdom, life lessons to last, and truth, but over and above all else, our all-encompassing love for them. Love that they will never have reason to question, “because we said so.”

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