No “Buts”

When I was a substitute preschool teacher I gained a few nuggets of wisdom for dealing with 3-5 year olds effectively. Things like “use your words” and “we don’t share our germs with our friends.” I learned pretty quickly that children are very sensitive to how you say things. I told a kid once to get down from somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be, and in the middle of his excuses for why he had to be up there I said in frustration, “I don’t care, Ben, you need to…” and quickly regretted it. His lip quivered as he rebuked me: “Don’t say you don’t care because God cares!” You’re right, kid. Wrong choice of words. But still, get down.

Another lesson I learned about word choice was the use of the word “but.” In kid world, the word “but” invalidates anything said before it. Sure, you may not mean it to, but those who hear it (children or otherwise) tend to focus their attention on whatever comes after the “but,” and everything said before fades to the background, even if some really kind things came beforehand.

For instance,

“You’re smart, but you got that answer wrong.”
“Thank you for cleaning up the mess, but you left a spot.”
“You’re pretty, but you have a big nose.”

Although I’ve grown up, I can see why little kids would focus on the second part of the sentence and in some cases feel hurt by it. Because I do, too. Perhaps it is because I have not emotionally-matured beyond the stage of a child, or perhaps it is because I have greater maturity than I used to and it has led me to a place of greater compassion for myself and for others. Regardless, I could use fewer “buts” in my life.

We live in a world where communication is a two-way street. Sometimes you need to change the way you misinterpret things you hear others say, and sometimes you need to change the way you say things so that others don’t misinterpret. At least, if you want to have rich, meaningful, mutually-beneficial relationships. You give a little, you take a little.

For my sanity I have to remember that not everyone I love agrees with me about the use of the word “but” and I don’t take it upon myself to convert them. All I can control are whether I use it toward others and whether I use it toward myself, not whether others use it toward me.

And even with the people who are trying, we have a hard time living up to our own high standards. BUT there’s always forgiveness and second chances with and for the people we love. (Don’t worry, there was nothing wrong with that one!)


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