It was a tough summer for my parents. At the tender age of eight, I had picked up some colorful vocabulary at day camp. I routinely wowed them in the kitchen with four-letter epithets, only to have my mouth washed out with soap by my dad. I can still taste the base, bubbly overtones of Ivory soap mixed with chocolate chip cookie dough, the Dial-and-orange juice combination, the Irish Spring with SpaghettiOs.
One day, after camp, I requested a second helping of ice cream. My mother told me no, and I called her an asshole. In her frustration, she began to cry. I saw the immediate impact of the pain I had caused her as she left the room sobbing. It was the last time I swore at her.
Last Thanksgiving, my kids and I visited my mom in Florida. As I applied sunscreen to my son’s face, he got impatient with me and called me a bitch. Shaken, with Alba Organics all over my palms, I stood in shock. My mother jumped to my defense, scolding my son for his disrespectful words. He ignored her and hopped in the pool. I hugged my mom, grateful for her love.
Last week, over dinner, my son called me an ass for making him participate in a trumpet recital. I took away his dessert and sent him to his room. I followed him upstairs minutes later. He lay on his side on the bed, facing away from me. As I rubbed his back, tears flowed down my cheeks. He rolled over, startled to hear me cry. I shook my head and told him he had really hurt my feelings.
“That was unkind of me. I won’t do it again,” he whispered. He put his arms around me and rested his head on my shoulder. Sometimes the most effective teaching tool is not the punishment; sometimes it is just a mother’s raw emotion.
My mother taught me something that day over my empty ice cream dish. I taught my son the same thing in his room last week. A mother’s tears are effective, but I’m keeping a bar of soap under the kitchen sink, just in case.
Mindy Uhrlaub, a musician, filmmaker, and mother of sons, has read at Litcrawl and is a contributor to Write on Mamas anthology Mamas Write. Her latest project, Unnatural Resources, is a novel about a girl growing up in the war-torn Congo.