16 July, 2008

Magic words

Of all the things that parents (are supposed to) teach their children I would submit that teaching them to ‘use their words’ is the most important.  The ability to properly communicate ones needs and desires is integral to any interpersonal relationship, no matter how inconsequential.  An ability to communicate well might be the deciding factor in whether someone chooses violence, passive aggressiveness, or assertiveness.  But in order to choose communication, people have to trust that communication will bring a successful resolution to whatever conflict they currently face.  They have to believe that their words will have the desired effect.
It is a fine line that must be walked in order to teach children that words can make a difference in the world without allowing them the fantasy that words make an automatic difference.  But that is, in effect, what we teach our children.  The ancients believed in certain Words of power which would imbue them with the power to control the very forces of nature.  But even in a society which has advanced past the practice of arcane rituals to ensure a good crop, we still teach them at the dinner table.  The example might be outdated, since I am unsure of how many families sit down to dinner together any more, but that is where I was taught this ritual.  I am sure you will recognize this scene.
Billy:  Pass the butter.
Mother:  What’s the magic word?
Billy:  Please?
Now, it is not my intention to say that we should not teach our children how to be polite.  On the contrary I think the standards of polite behavior should be more strictly enforced, but that is not what is transpiring in the above dialogue.  Billy is not learning etiquette; he thinks he is learning magic words.  Of course, it will be argued that it is just a figure of speech but I would be disinclined to agree.  Kids know what magic is, and if they are forever denied what they seek until they speak a ‘magic word’ what other conclusion can they reach but what is constantly reinforced?
If the jury needs further proof, I direct their attention to any retail outlet across the nation where a child is asking for something.
Child:  Can I have (insert virtually anything)?
Parent:  No
Child:  PuhLEASE?!?!
The child believes that the magic word can transform a no into a yes.  It is not the child’s fault; it is only doing what it has been taught.  And if the parent EVER gives in to this tactic, it will only reinforce in the child’s mind that this is the way it works.
It was a belief in magic words that caused Demi Moore’s character, Lieutenant Commander Galloway in A Few Good Men, to ‘strenuously object’ in the courtroom, much to the derision of the bench and the ridicule of her own camp.  She should have been taught, at a young age, that there are no magic words which will change reality from what you do not want it to be into what you wish it to be.
Authority figures may be swayed by our arguments but they will rarely acquiesce to our pleas (and is the homonym merely a coincidence?  I think not) alone.  There are no magic words.  And if human authority is immune to our supplication, Nature is even more so.  She will not listen to even our most eloquent argument, let alone our most impassioned (or spoiled) demand.  Words can be used in a conflict to negotiate a compromise with other humans, but reality does not compromise, and we shouldn’t teach our children that there is a chance it will. 

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