A Simple Sentence

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I know I have written about him before so if you are a long-time reader, you will recognize this name. Mr. Rouse was one of my grade school teachers. My life changed because of one sentence he said to me.

The short story is that after grading my spelling test he said in a disappointed tone, “You are too smart to make silly mistakes like this.”

For the first time someone thought I was smart! I never wanted to disappoint Mr. Rouse again, but I also started believing in myself. What a huge change all because of one simple sentence.

My grandmother did the same thing, which is another story I think I’ve shared in years past. I loved my grandmother and her very primitive existence in the house where my father and his six siblings grew up. A coal stove heated the downstairs, nothing heated upstairs, and even though there was a bathroom in the house, for the early part of my childhood it didn’t work and we used an outhouse. But I didn’t mind at all and the weeks I spent with her each summer are among the fondest memories of my childhood.

On one of those visits, I had decided I wanted to take home the play money from a board game she had. I asked her if I could. Rightly so, she denied that request telling me that my sisters and my cousins played with that game too. But I didn’t really care so I stowed it away in my suitcase the day I was supposed to leave. Yes, I was a thief.

My grandmother was no fool. Before my parents arrived to pick me up, she said she noticed the money was gone from the game and gently asked me if I’d seen it. I denied it, of course. With only an hour or two to go, I’d be home free with my stolen treasure.

But again she asked, “Are you sure you haven’t seen it?” Again I missed the opportunity to return the money without penalty, but I was too stubborn and confident in my deception.

One last time she asked, “Well are you sure it didn’t accidentally fall into your suitcase?” Even then I was too dense to realize she knew what I’d done and she was trying to help me save myself. Maybe I wasn’t as smart as Mr. Rouse thought I was.

When I denied it a final time she said we would “just check to be sure.” I followed her upstairs to the bedroom where my father slept when he was a child and stood there as she opened my suitcase and began moving aside socks and t-shirts. There, of course, was the play money.

I knew I was in trouble, but this is where the story takes an interesting turn. There was no spanking, no standing in the corner, and no writing “I will not steal” 100 times on lined paper. She wasn’t angry, she didn’t scold me, and she didn’t call me a thief. Any of those things would have been familiar to me and appropriate for my selfish behavior.

Instead, she gently put her hand on my shoulder and led me to the top of the stairs. We sat down and I, only half her short height at my age, was squeezed against her side, her arm around me as I stared straight ahead. I couldn’t make eye contact. My parents would soon arrive and I knew I was in double-trouble — quite literally.

But her sweet calm voice simply said, “Don’t you understand? That play money is already yours. It will always be here for you.”

In that moment, just as I responded to the single sentence from Mr. Rouse, I never wanted to disappoint her again. Nothing else was ever said, I don’t know if my parents ever knew about it, and it didn’t require any spanking or punishment. Only an expectation of something better in the context of a relationship — just like with Mr. Rouse.

That is a skill I’ve mirrored for decades. No child who has come into my therapy room ever needed “discipline” from me. They needed to respect me — like I respected Mr. Rouse and my grandmother. With that foundation, I have only needed simple sentences to modify behavior. My clients want to please me and that doesn’t come from spankings or harsh words.

And, at the same time, gentle words or words of disappointment are meaningless without respect. Not just the child’s respect for the adult, but also the adult’s respect for the child. And this, my friends, is how life can change course in a single sentence.

[Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D., is a college professor, published author, licensed counselor, certified professional counselor supervisor, newspaper columnist and public speaker. His website is gregmoffatt.com.]