How the Words You Say to Children have Lasting Impact
The words you say to your children may not show their impact until much later in life. Choose your words carefully.
I am a physician who was trained since medical school to have a dislike for lawyers because of the few who constantly look for ways to point out that physicians are not perfect. These malpractice lawyers spend their lives often ruining the lives and careers of physicians. Yes, patients need advocates to protect them, but they do not need people looking over medical records where the end result is: if the words are not written down, then it didn’t happen. Physicians do our best to write everything that we discuss with our patients, and electronic medical records have helped this a great deal. But it is still nearly impossible to document everything discussed in the office or hospital. And unfortunately, if there is an undesirable medical result, these medical records often have the final say.
Physicians take the Hippocratic Oath, which boils down to “First Do No Harm”. Patients are not all the same and outcomes are not all what we want them to be. But as a whole, physicians are caring people who understand that our patients’ lives are often in our hands; thus, we do our best to do no harm.
Of course, as in any field, there are exceptions. There is no excuse for practicing under the influence of drugs and alcohol. These physicians need to be disciplined as their choices have already ruined their lives and careers. Patients need to be protected from physicians who are not doing their best. Hospitals and physician groups do an excellent job of monitoring our own and routinely review these undesirable results with a goal of determining appropriate discipline and learning opportunities to avoid these future incidents.
Early in my career, I learned that malpractice lawyers constantly raise questions about reasons physicians could not make a diagnosis fast enough or why one treatment option was chosen over another. Medicine is not an exact science, and there is usually more than one acceptable course of treatment. Physician malpractice insurance has sky-rocketed because we need to find our own lawyers to defend us, after we did our best but it is declared not good enough.
Personally, my practice changed when I assisted a colleague in performing a complex surgery. One week later, while the patient was in the ICU, a major event occurred that was not related to the surgery; however, as surgeons, we are captain of the ship. Anything that happens after our surgery is directed to us. The lawyers came in and assigned blame to as many physicians as they could find. Because of the potential to face blame for events that occur later when we were no longer the main physician managing the patient, we both decided to stop performing that type of surgery. These are personal physician choices, driven by concern about what the lawyers will say or do.
This background is important in understanding the constant lawyer bashing words my girls heard on a regular basis. I always pointed out how caring physicians were and how heartless and brutal lawyers were. My words taught my daughters that lawyers don’t care about the truth, they only care about winning.
In medical school, I studied in the law libraries (which are awesome!), and my law school friends explained how they had presentations fighting for a verdict on a case, and then, they had to fight just a passionately for the other side: effectively ignoring all the information they clearly knew and only focus on the new goal of winning. Truth does not matter. Just use the law. Find the loophole. Find the punctuation error that lets you interpret something in a way far different than what you know was intended.
I found this concept disgusting and proceeded to make constant lawyer jokes to my girls. Please understand that I have lots of lawyer friends who I love; I just hate their job, and their ability to see what they need to see, not necessarily what is actually there. I have needed lawyers for many reasons over my career as they have a vital role in our world; I commend them on their work. I just hate it at the same time.
As I matured, I began to understand that this ability to see things from a variety of viewpoints provides exactly what is needed to give each of us a fair shot at presenting our side of the story. It is actually an extraordinary gift. I am judgmental and would make a terrible lawyer. On a jury, I honestly don’t think I could objectively listen to what a person said to explain why he was driving down the highway at 100 miles per hour with 2 kilos of cocaine in his trunk! Nope, not interested. Guilty. I interpret facts in a way that is most likely correct, not what tiny possibly could exist. Lawyers are trained to look for the tiny possibility and make it appear larger.
As my daughter matured, we would have heated debates, and as I listened to her words, I found myself repeatedly thinking: Who are you? Don’t you see that is a wrong thing? How could you see that from another angle?
It slowly dawned on me that she had that extraordinary gift of playing devil’s advocate and looking at things from different perspectives. She also loves aggressively debating, and I am sorry I didn’t recognize this earlier and get her involved on the debate team. She has an uncanny ability to persuade others to her side, even when she is wrong.
One jaw dropping example occurred in high school. After a super bowl game when discussing the best commercials, she aggressively argued in her class: The big horses with long hair on their lower legs, pulling the beer trucks… these were Cyclops horses. Other students could not quite recall the exact name but vaguely said they didn’t think her answer was correct. Not backing down or doubting herself, she worked the room with arguments and slowly won over more students to help in her fight to rename these horses. Quietly a voice in the corner said “I think they are Clydesdale horses.” She found it hilarious and roared with laughter! No shame or embarrassment about her words. You win some and you lose some. After she told me this story, I knew she had a gift that could translate into being a good lawyer. Work the room and make people believe what you believe.
I told her she should be a lawyer. Yes, I had forgotten that she had been pounded with words that attacked that profession for 18 years, and I was unprepared for her reaction. She was offended that I thought she was like those monstrous people. Oops.
Over the last few years, I have done a lot of back pedaling and highlighting lawyers in a positive light. Each year, she had a less violent reaction to the concept of lawyers. Recently, after a trip to Washington, DC, she excitedly talked about how great it was to meet random people on the street and openly debate about everything! She announced: I think I just like to fight!
Wow. Yes, I am glad she is coming into her own. But again, wow.
She is a business major focusing on strategy and operations with a minor in engineering. She plans to have a career starting with management consulting and hopes to ultimately obtain her MBA. Recently she casually said: Hmmm. I might look into getting an MBA / JD.
JD? As in Juris Doctor? As in lawyer?
I smiled to myself. My work is done. Lawyer or not, she had been successfully de-programmed from the words of hate I had planted throughout her childhood.
This is clearly an example of the power that our words have on our children. Be careful about your biases as it blocks your children from making their own decisions. Our jobs are to raise them to be their best selves, not to be clones of ourselves. Words from parents have the power to pass on racism, sexism, classism, religious and lifestyle intolerances. We need to share our beliefs, but use words in a way that do not make our children afraid to believe in something different for fear of disappointing us.