Practicing Parents

What’s That in Your Mouth?

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~ Amanda Cormack

There is nothing like parenthood to make a person well versed on the subject of poop. From the moment my bundle of joy arrived, amidst an explosion of meconium, my spouse and I have spent more time than I ever would have imagined discussing, cleaning, analyzing, and monitoring the presence (or absence) of poop. We have learned to recognize when our daughter is getting too much fruit, or not enough water; we know what foods get the works moving, and which will grind things to a halt; and–in a development of marriage that I frankly never anticipated–we debrief each other on matters of consistency, interval, and quantity.

I think I can safely surmise that no one really gets excited about this particular aspect of parenting. However, from the first tiny little diaper to the promised land of toilet training, this is a level of intimacy that we may never experience with another human. As a parent, you quickly learn that what goes into the mouth really does matter–and you learn to interpret the outcomes with an eye toward your child’s overall health and wellbeing.

But there’s another thing that parenthood quickly teaches: what comes out of the mouth is an equally effective indicator of health. If I never listened to myself before, my toddler now serves as my own personal amplifier. It didn’t take too many frustrated “Dammit”s from me for Claire to expertly add that word to her vocabulary. I’ve also discovered that I begin almost every address to her with the word “honey,” as she now liberally sprinkles her own sentences with similar endearments.

In the Gospel lectionary reading for August 17 (Matthew 15:10-28), Jesus begins by tangling with some Pharisees over the question of ritual purity. Jesus insists that what comes out of a mouth is more important than what goes into it–”Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

I can’t help but hear this lesson with the ears of a parent. Even though my own child is only beginning to develop her language skills, I already know something about the person she is, and the person she is becoming, by what I hear. Of course, this doesn’t stop with todderhood. I recently listened as my niece, age fourteen, intelligently engaged a group of adults in a delicate discussion about issues of social justice. Certainly her thoughts reflected the input of her parents and other adults who have influenced her thinking and education. But now, at the brink of her own adulthood, such opinions have begun to proceed from her own heart, rather than what she has merely learned by rote.

This lectionary reminds me that I want others to hear words that are a reflection of my own heart, or rather, the heart I wish to cultivate: a heart of patience, love, understanding, and advocacy.  But it also reminds me that even the best of us fall short sometimes in this regard. Consider verses 21 through 28 as a kind of illustrative example. Immediately after Jesus pinpoints the importance of our words, he encounters a Canaanite woman who asks healing for her daughter. With uncharacteristic haughtiness, he insults her, saying, “It is not fair to take the the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” It is a moment of sheer cruelty on the part of Jesus, a painfully human moment where his words simply do not reflect the loving heart of God. I am thankful that the distraught mother didn’t let him get away with such a jibe–she responds, without missing a beat, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” With that retort, she seems to recall Jesus to himself; he commends her faith and heals her daughter instantly.

As a parent, my takeaway from this week’s Gospel lesson is twofold. First, my words matter. In the same way that my daughter’s diaper serves as a barometer for her body’s nutritional health, her speech serves as a measure of her mental and emotional balance. If my child hears angry, hurtful, or dismissive language from me often enough, her own speech (and behavior) will eventually reflect that input. If she hears language of engagement, love, and affirmation, she’ll mirror that back as well.

That being said, I don’t get it right all the time. I get tired…OFTEN. I get cranky…TOO OFTEN. I lose my temper and say things I don’t mean, not only to my daughter, but also to my spouse, my coworkers, even to myself. And I feel horrible when I do it. But it turns out, I’m in pretty good company. We’ve all been there. Even Jesus had a bad day now and again. Fortunately, one bad day isn’t the whole ball of wax. Jesus sets a pretty good example for us parents by showing us that, even when our mouths set things wrong, we can sometimes make things right—and set a good example for our kids—by eating our words.

Amanda Cormack is an approved candidate for ordination in the United Church of Christ, wife to an amazing full-time daddy/home improver, and mother to a precocious two-year-old daughter.

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