5 Words

Fair warning: the title is a misnomer— this is not really about 5 words, but rather 5 phrases.

My wife and I recently had the idea that if our children could leave the house and go into the world able to say these 5 words (phrases), then we will have succeeded as parents. I recognize that many readers are not parents (or the time of active parenting is long gone), but I still think it’s a useful idea for ourselves and those around us.

If you are actively parenting and trying to grow your children into adults, perhaps cultivating the ability to say these words will be a helpful touchstone to guide you. If you find you’ve gotten to adulthood, and struggle with saying these words, perhaps that is an area of growth for you. For all of us , these are lifelong practices, areas where no matter how adept we are, we can always deepen our ability and improve.

Please: Being polite, even to people we do not like, is a key part of thriving in the world. The point is not to harp on manners overly much, but the ability to remain civil, particularly in the face of disagreement, seems to be in short supply today. On another level, the ability to say please is about being able to ask for what we need. We are interdependent, and we all need help getting our needs met– so how do we do this? Ideally, we ask, and we ask in such a way that others will help.

On a deeper level, it is often much easier for us to give help than to ask for it. Few people like asking for help. And yet, the ability to ask for help– particularly in a way that other people can hear and respond to– is a critical skill.

Saying please also helps mitigate the risk that those who help us feel taken for granted. When my kids ask for me to do something politely, I know I respond differently than when their request is rude or demanding. Our nature as humans is to want to help those around us, and we feel good when we can lend a helping hand. But we only like helping sometimes— usually, when the request is accompanied by please. We have to be able to recruit help and articulate our needs. Say please.

Thank you: Continuing the theme of politeness, saying thank you can made small interactions more meaningful and pleasant, which has a surprisingly large impact on our happiness. On a more fundamental level, saying thank you is about expressing gratitude and appreciation to others. While this is true and important at the coffee shop and the check-out line, it is a more profound life skill to be able to say this to people who matter deeply to us.

How often do we say thank you to the people we love for the things they do routinely? Thank you for picking up the kids from school today. Thank you for making dinner. Thank you for cleaning up the house. Thank you for being my partner. Thank you for being my friend. Expressing our gratitude and appreciation to the people we have in our lives makes them want to stay in our lives. Saying thank you is the antidote to feeling taken for granted, the opposite of feeling unseen. When we receive a thank you, we have received an acknowledgment for the work and effort we have put in. That, in turn, creates strong, healthy, lasting relationships.

I don’t know: The more secure we are in ourselves, the easier it is to admit we don’t know, but it takes a lot of practice to say these words. Learning, by definition, involves acquiring skills and knowledge that we did not previously possess. Learning can only happen when we identify a gap; admitting that we have a gap is hard. It makes us feel deficient. And yet, it is the prerequisite for growth.

Paradoxically, saying I don’t know gets harder the simpler the thing is. Saying I don’t know quantum physics (true) is easier than saying I don’t know how to help my child (sometimes true).But it is the second type of admission that matters more, and the second type of admission allows us to grow. We conflate simple with easy, become embarrassed, hide our struggle, and stagnate. The more we practice saying I don’t know, the more opportunity and permission we give ourselves to grow and learn. Isn’t that what we want for our kids?

I’m sorry: My wife says that no one is kind and loving all of the time. She’s right. The question is not if we will make mistakes– the question is can we admit it to our mistakes, and then can we make amends? For some people, I’m sorry is the hardest thing to say. I do not think it is easy for anyone. The way we learn to say sorry is to see others do it, particularly people we love and admire. The more we practice saying sorry, the more we model the behavior, the more our kids and those around us will pick it up.

I’m sorry is not an empty statement, it is also a promise to work to repair the damage. It is a given that human relationships involve rupture. There’s no way around it. The goal is to cultivate, in ourselves and in our children, a way to repair the rupture. We sometimes think that the goal should be to never have a rupture in the first place. While that would be nice, it’s a fantasy. Given that all relationships involve rupture, the question must become how do we teach the ability to repair them? I’m sorry is the beginning of the repair process.

I love you: There is no intimacy without vulnerability, and vulnerability is scary. Making yourself vulnerable to another person requires taking risks, and making yourself vulnerable enough to love is the greatest risk of all.

The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return. That is not possible without actually expressing those feelings.

With all of these words, the point is not just to feel it or know it or believe it, the point is to ​say it​. To have the courage to articulate to another person our thanks, our contrition, our love. As someone who tends to express how I feel through my actions rather than my words, I can tell you saying these things out loud can be harder than it seems. The importance of saying it out loud is tremendous. Feeling thankful is not the same as telling someone thank you. Wanting help is not the same as asking for help. Not knowing is different than telling someone I don’t know. Recognizing that we have screwed up and actually making an apology are separate things. And expressing love for someone goes further than simply feeling it. Saying these words is a skill, a practice, and the more we practice saying them, the easier and more natural it becomes. By saying these words, we are also modeling behavior, and the effects of that modeling are powerful.

Especially as children, we learn by what people say, and we learn by watching what people do. We can help others around us learn to say these words by saying them ourselves, and by living the truths behind them.

Are there other words on your list? What five words do you want your children and family to know how to say?


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