The other day a friend of mine was on the phone with her father and received a sharp reminder of the power of parental words.
"So, Dad, I'm thinking of looking for a new job," she said as they were chatting. "I've been doing the part-time thing for a while now, and I'm ready to step it up."
"I don't know, honey," he said after a pause. "Do you think there's anything out there for you?"
His words shot into her like a javelin, and she almost gasped. It was not so much the words as the freight they carried.
This woman, I should say, is almost 50. She has a family and a career and a mortgage, and if you were to meet her, you would think, "Wow, this dame has her act together." She speaks confidently and amusingly; she's organized and punctual; more to the point, she has experienced her share of sharp remarks along the way -- who hasn't?
Yet a mild expression of doubt from a 75-year-old retiree had the power practically to stun her -- because he was her dad.
With any other interlocutor, she admitted, she'd simply have batted back the question with a cheerful "Oh, I expect so," or "That's what I'm going to find out!" But this felt like fatal discouragement. Her father clearly didn't think she'd find a new job, ergo, he didn't think she was capable of finding a new job, ergo, she wasn't capable. In fact, she was worthless.
All this might seem rather a precipitous conclusion from a simple comment -- and maybe it is. Yet it points to the almost frightening power that parents have to shape their children's view of themselves, and of reality. Even when both parties are fully grown-up, the asymmetry of the parent-child dynamic can turn even the mildest of observations into incoming missiles.
As a child, I can testify to this; as a mother, I tremble to think of the rotten things I may accidentally say.
After all, a remark like, "You look great today," could sound like, "Why were you such a slob yesterday?"
"An A-plus? Congratulations, that's terrific!" could sound like, "Hmm. I didn't think you had it in you."
In some Catch-22-type cases, it's impossible to say the right thing, and saying nothing is worse. I'm thinking here of a beautiful young dancer, a friend of our family, who cannot help but experience the encouragement she hears from admirers as a terrific kind of pressure. "Oh, remember us when you're a famous dancer!" people will gush. Inwardly, the girl agonizes, "But what if I'm ... not?"
Talking over the troubling conversation with my javelin-shot friend, I speculated that maybe her father was not alluding to some unworthiness on her part when he expressed doubt that "there's anything out there" for her. Maybe he was just reflecting the general gloom of the job market and the fact that unemployment has been higher than 8 percent for 43 months.
Such is the tormenting power of parental words that she hadn't even considered the possibility.
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.