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What Moms Say: What Kids Hear

My mother claimed that she didn’t believe in praising her children. While she was an otherwise enlightened woman, Mom attributed her perspective to old world superstition – saying that praising a child meant tempting fate. While I envied friends whose mothers seemed to gush over their every move, they argued that that too had its downside. And, to my amazement, some of these friends never fully heard the positives their mothers heaped on them, since a mother’s criticism drowns out the accolades.

Reading Deborah Tannen’s “Your Wearing That?” raises the question of what children want to hear from their moms; what moms most often provide; and how what mothers say is actually heard by their kids. While some of the issues Tannen discusses, such as hairstyle and clothes, are mom-daughter specific, many of the book’s observations apply to mothers and sons, to spouses, and even to dads.

The bottom line is that children want approval and acknowledgment from their parents and that parents want to guide, advise, direct, protect and improve their children. A daughter will interpret her mother’s often well-intended suggestions and comments as disapproval – hence the title of the book. Even when mothers think they are adopting a neutral tone of voice, daughters can read the intended message. The mother herself may not be totally aware of what she is conveying between the lines– but as children we are master translators and interpreters. I remember having arguments with my mother in which she declared innocence of any underlying directive –“ that’s not what I meant “ – but I knew that she had an agenda… no matter how much she was trying to hide it from to me, and perhaps even from herself. My son claims to be able to detect my agenda, even when I insist (and believe) I don't have one. Subtext is powerful, and once we’ve learned our parents' perspectives we become masters at identifying their point of view in the subtlest inflection-- in what is said, and not said.

Tannen suggests how both mothers and daughters can become more aware of the dynamic underlying their conflict. What often leads a mom to comment on her daughter’s hair, weight and clothes is that she identifies with her daughter -- and sees the daughter as a reflection of herself, moving -- beyond her control – out into the larger world. (And don’t we women do that with other family members, too, -- feeling that a carelessly ironed shirt or uncombed head tells the world we’re not doing our job.) So as moms we need to disengage a little and let daughters be themselves. It would also help if we mothers were more direct. As women we are often taught to couch our thoughts to make them more acceptable. Not always a bad thing to do – and sometimes helpful. However, daughters understandably get miffed when mothers don't own up to their messages. Either say it or rethink it -- but don’t try to slip it in subliminally.

As for daughters – it would help for us to realize that a mother’s comments are mostly born out of caring and the desire to protect (mom thinking -- “better I should tell her this than a stranger…”) Daughters can recognize that moms have been trained to protect, advise, etc. and see it as their unwritten job description. And we daughters can be at least a little empathetic to an element of comparison, and even competition, that moms feel but rarely admit – that seeing a younger model with an uncharted future raises a mix of feelings -- from hope (that she won't repeat my mistakes) to envy. There aren’t any easy answers, but “Your Wearing That?" will help everyone who’s ever had, or been, a mother reconsider the power of language.

by Istar Schwager, Ph.D. - for

copyright 2006 Dr. Istar Schwager. All rights reserved

How do you and your mom get along? Share your strategies for mother-daughter dialogue! -- let us know.

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