Has the old adage of "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothin' at all" been condensed to "Don't Say Anything"?
I'm seeing these types of lists and advice posts more and more frequently, and every time I do, I cringe just a little. I have to wonder: In eliminating all the questions, advice, and comments that might be taken the wrong way, are we silencing the very words which might bind us together and deepen our connections with one another?
An obvious response to this would be, Just make sure you're saying kind words. However, the thing about these lists is that, taken one at a time, most of the off-limit comments are not truly mean.
It may be true that if you ask a new mom how her new baby is sleeping at night, she might take offense. Perhaps she only got a combined total of thirty minutes of sleep the night before, and she's sure your question is really your way of rubbing in the fact that your baby slept through the night at two weeks old. So if you follow the advice to never bring up a baby's sleeping habits around a new mom, you won't run the risk of offending her. But then again, if you avoid the topic, you will most certainly miss the opportunity to let her cry her exhausted tears on your sympathetic shoulder. And if I had to choose, I'd say the latter is the greater tragedy.
Mike has an abundance of aunts (seriously, who wouldn't want an abundance of aunts?!), all of them kind and experienced and wonderfully wise. One time one of them said (and I'm paraphrasing) that we have to be willing to talk about the weaknesses that make us feel vulnerable because that's how we connect with one another. And that's true. But in my opinion, it is equally important to ask the questions or offer the words that make us feel vulnerable. It's hard, but sometimes we have to risk saying the wrong thing in order to ever say the right thing.
Of course I've received my fair share of comments that seemed tactless, thoughtless, or even rude. For the sake of illustration, I'll give one small example, one that (happily for you) isn't steeped in too much emotional drama:
Aaron started first grade this year. He's going to a different elementary school than the one we're zoned for. During the past several months, I've had friends, neighbors, and family members ask me where Aaron is going to school, and when I tell them, they're always very curious about our decision. Consequently, I always feel like I have to add a dozen justifications for why he is going to that school instead of the one in our neighborhood.
Maybe I should write a post: 10 Things Not to Say to a Mom Who Has Just Spent an Entire Year Trying to Decide What To Do For Her Six-Year-Old Son's Education. Because sometimes, I admit, I've felt a little defensive.
But if I wrote that post, and if you read it, and if you applied everything you read and avoided the subject of education completely, I would truly be missing out--on the chance to hear another perspective, to hash out my doubts and insecurities, and to discover commonalities. And I wouldn't miss out on that for the world.
Okay, one more example. Yesterday I looked out on the backyard to find that Maxwell had turned on the hose. Again. All summer long, he's been turning it on, getting himself all wet, and leaving it running until I discover it many hours later. I've told him again and again that he can't turn it on without asking me. So I informed him that he'd have to go inside. And he proceeded to run away. Of course. He ran into the front yard, and our neighbor, who was watching, laughed and said, "He'll be grown up before you know it."
I'm pretty sure that comment is on all of the 10 Things Not to Say to a Mom of a Four-Year-Old lists, especially if you've never had a to deal with a four-year-old of your own. But oh, I'm so glad Kristy obviously hadn't read or applied that advice. If she'd made some safe comment about the beautiful weather or just pretended not to see me, I know I wouldn't have had any reason to smile in that moment. And sometimes, a little smile to diffuse the tension can go a long way.
Of course there are some things you should never say to new moms or old dads or anyone else, but I would hope you wouldn't need a list to know what those things are. And the truth is, the kinds of people who like to make mean-spirited comments are going to make them regardless of a list being out there that says that they shouldn't.
In the end, we're just imperfect people making imperfect connections. So please, ask me about my baby's sleep patterns or my children's education. Remind me that small ones grow up too fast and that life is too short. I'll do the same, and together we'll strengthen those life-saving, life-giving, and live-enriching ties.