“Let’s play babies,” begged my 2-year-old of her big sister. “I’ll be the Mommy and you be the Sweetheart.” Intrigued, I asked, “What’s that mean to be the Sweetheart?”
“The Sweetheart is the little girl,” came the dear reply. “Her Mommy calls her ‘Sweetheart’ because she loves her so much.”
A Hallmark moment. Stop time. Count your blessings. Count your successes. And wipe those silly tears from your eyes, Mommy.
I watched them play and thought about terms of endearment in our home. My husband gives all our children sweet, silly nicknames shortly after they are born. The names just tumble from him as he coos and coaxes smiles. Some of them have rarely heard him call them by their real names. All they know is the term of endearment. The sweetness of “Sweetheart” is their entire identity. They know that they are dear. They know that they are special (a term so overused that I hesitate to print it, but that, when used properly, really does capture the intended meaning of an endearment).
Some of my children earn new nicknames as they grow. Stephen is rarely called by his name. Friends and family alike call him “Super,” short for Superman, a name he gave himself over three years ago. And he is Super. He lives up to his name in so many ways. We believe he is exceptional and so does he. Our words hold such power to shape their perceptions of themselves.
I was on the phone with a friend the other day when one of my children interrupted me. I stopped to talk to him and my friend commented that she liked to listen when my children interrupted (something that happens all too often, I am afraid). She likes to hear the way I talk to them. While I am not perfect in this regard, I do make a concerted effort to speak to them kindly and with respect. They spend so much time with me that I know that they will speak to others the way I speak to them. And this theory has borne itself out when I’ve heard a toddler utter an expletive better suited to a sorority house. I know where she heard that. Not a proud moment. Better are the “sweetheart” moments, the times I know that their souls have been touched by words of kindness.
A child who is spoken to in a harsh tone or using harsh words, or who is called by derogatory names, truly does burn those words, those names, that identity upon his heart. He hears that tone of voice; he believes the meaning of the name. He lives that identity well into his adulthood. Often, he learns to talk to himself that way, perpetuating for all time, the negative responses the name or the tone evokes. And if you were to report this, many years later, to the adults who so colored his childhood, they might be surprised. They didn’t know that he was listening or that he understood when they called him a brat while chatting with friends. They didn’t know he sensed their annoyance when they snapped at him at the end of a long day. They didn’t think he was old enough to catch the nuance of irritation in a brusque remark. But he noticed. He named himself a bother, a pain, a burden. How much better it would have been to be a sweetheart.
Elizabeth Foss is a freelance writer from northern Virginia. Real Learning: Education in the Heart of the Home by Elizabeth Foss can be purchased at www.4reallearning.com.
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)