Every Word Counts

“We really baked their chicken!” Brian exclaimed gleefully.

“You did what?” I asked. 

“Last night, when my Dad came back from the meeting with our neighbors he said, ‘We really baked their chicken.’”


“Did he maybe say, ‘We really cooked their goose?’” 

“Yeah, that’s it!” 

Kids repeat, often word-for-word, what their parents say. Sometimes they mangle it, like Brian did. Whether quoted word-for-word or misquoted, there’s no get-out-of-jail-free card for any parent on this planet. That which comes out of your mouth will come out of the mouths of your children.

Brian’s parents had been in the process of building a mansion on the top of Twin Peaks, a neighborhood known for its expansive views of the city and the Pacific ocean. In order to complete building their fancy new house, they needed the neighbors to sign-off on it. This was the meeting where Brian reported the neighbor’s fowl had been heated.

A few years after Brian left my studio I found myself teaching two brothers, ages 8 and 10. The older one, Jeb, played soccer. One Saturday afternoon he came into his lesson beaming. 

“You look happy, what happened?”

“Oh, it was so cool,” he said. “I kicked this kid really hard in my soccer game and I got called on the foul and I felt really bad because I got caught but then my Dad took me out for ice cream on the way over here because he said it was a great foul. He said sometimes you have to just play rough. He said it doesn’t matter as long as you win. And we won the game so it was totally great!”

I live in San Francisco, as do many celebrities. The actor Robin Williams lived here in the Seacliff neighborhood. (We were not neighbors. I live in the Sunset District, if you must know.) 

At Halloween, Mr. Williams was known for giving out extravagant gifts to his trick-or-treaters. His mansion was a popular Halloween destination.

A few weeks later at the lesson that followed Halloween, Jeb reported something else his Dad had helped him do.

“There was this really long line at Robin Williams’ house. Like there was NO WAY everyone was going to get stuff. So my Dad showed us how to cut the line without anyone figuring it out. We got the last stuff because they ran out right after we got ours. Isn’t that cool? Because if we’d waited in line like everyone else we wouldn’t have gotten anything at all. My Dad is so cool.”

It’s hard for me to imagine what the Dad thought he was teaching his sons. The lesson he taught me was to be careful what I say. My kids will repeat it when I wish they wouldn’t. I’m not talking about an occasional swear word or slip-up. I’m talking about the meta-messages. The big stuff that gets taught in little ways. 

As teachers, we have to be careful, too. What we say will come out when we least expect it. Jane Bastien says to teach each student as if they were your very best. Over the years she says some of her least-talented students have come to hear her speak and proudly told her they were now teaching piano! It’s made her realize that what she teaches will be passed on so she’d better give her best to every student.

Every word counts.