After you have departed this world, will anyone remember your very last words? Maybe. How about your very first words? Probably not. But if you’re a parent, you’re almost guaranteed that at least a few of the middle-of-life words you spoke to your children will outlive you. More than a few, I’ll wager.
Not only will they remember your most famous words decades after you spoke them, but they’ll continue to be influenced by them throughout their adult lives. They’ll be following personal and professional trajectories set into motion by just a few powerful words from parents or teachers.
“You really have a flair for that!”
These were my mother’s exact words, almost 50 years ago, as she admired a drawing I had made. I clearly remember how this made me feel. Several years later, I was in college, majoring in advertising design. A year later I changed my major because of something else my mother said:
“I’ll bet you could!”
Again, her exact words. It was my mother’s response to my audacious claim, “I could write better songs than this!” We were listening to a “musical” performed by high-school students at our church. I was 17 years old, and I had never written a song. Ten years later, my songs had gotten me a recording contract with a major label, and, soon after, my first album was released. (Sorry to say, the songs weren’t all that great.)
On the other hand, my dad (also a musician) told me, “No you can’t. You don’t have enough talent.” And when I started releasing records, he refused to listen to them. He didn’t understand what an honor it is to a father when his children surpass his own achievements. Essentially, my father was saying, “Whatever you do, don’t follow your dreams.”
I took the opposite approach with my own children. I loved to tell them, “Anything I can do, you can do better.” And wouldn’t you know it? They’ve proved me right!
Robert Redford tells a story of a pivotal moment in his childhood. His teacher caught him drawing in class when he should have been listening. Her response surprised him: “Instead of putting me down, she made a deal.” He was allowed to draw at specific times of the week and was invited to show his work to the class.
“Had that not happened, I would have been humiliated. It probably would have knocked me down to not trust that impulse that I had. Sometimes — I don’t know about you — but maybe one or two encouragements in your life is all you need to spur you forward, rather than have you collapse.”
One or two encouragements.