I can pinpoint the exact moment I realized I had to stop gossiping. My daughter, Sylvie, then 3, was playing dolls with a friend, and they were the mommies. “Sarah never picks up her kids on time,” Sylvie said, in a perfect imitation of my judgy tone. “What’s up with that?”
I was mortified (not in the least because I’m often late for school pickup myself). How could she possibly have heard me? Whenever I said something that wasn’t meant for her to hear, I always made sure she was out of earshot.
Now I know that with kids, there is no “out of earshot.” That whispered conversation you had behind closed doors? Overheard. That—ahem—colorful phrase you blurted out in the car when someone almost hit you? Noted. The chat about Uncle Frank’s “incident” you think went over their head? They’ll ask him about it at Thanksgiving. Inevitably, all new parents learn that now that they’re the adults in the family, they must pay scrupulous attention to what they say—and don’t say—when kids are around.
Not only has my child’s constant surveillance prompted me to watch my language, it has also pitilessly exposed my less-than-noble behavior. When a class mom asked me to fill in at a PTA event one day after school, I babbled an excuse that I had a doctor’s appointment, as Sylvie watched with narrowed eyes.
“We don’t have to go to the doctor,” she said afterward, her forehead puckered. “Don’t you say that I should always tell the truth?” She had me there. I was supposed to be the grown-up in this situation. Why didn’t I just say, “Sorry, I can’t make it,” which happened to be true?
Fortunately, I have discovered an upside to the never-ending scrutiny: Parenthood offers you a rare and wonderful sort of do-over, where you can at least try to be the idealized version of the person your child sees.
And so I’m using my newfound maturity as an opportunity to be an all-around better human. I think through my opinions instead of tossing out some half-formed idea. I’ve cleaned up my language (okay, mostly). I look for the positive in a situation and point it out. I try to tell the truth. Young children may have no idea what the word hypocrite means, but they sense when you are one. They expect you to say what you mean—and mean what you say.
My daughter is now 7, and I’ve become acutely aware that my words are directly shaping her view of the world—that they are, in essence, her inner voice, until she develops her own. I’ve stopped criticizing my appearance. Rather than moaning about my wobbly bits, I now make proclamations like, “I’m so glad I’m strong and healthy.” (And the great thing is, I’m starting to believe it.)
These sorts of earnest utterances don’t naturally come out of an adult’s mouth. It’s easier to hide behind irony, cynicism, or jokes. But I am trying to be kinder. Smarter. Tactful. In other words, grown-up.
Jancee Dunn’s book How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids comes out March 2017.