What’s a Mother to Do?
by Ann Edwards Cannon
[p.20]On paper, at least, the whole idea of communication seems so simple. Here’s how it’s supposed to work: Person A talks while Person B listens. Then Person A listens while Person B talks. At the end of this exchange both of them know exactly what the other one is thinking.
The whole thing’s a snap.
Of course this process never works smoothly in real life because such factors as (a) age and (b) sex get in the way. Age, of course, can be a significant barrier to effective communication, especially if you are dealing with individuals much younger than yourself. I’ve learned from direct personal experience, for example, that you can talk to a baby until you are totally blue in the face, but in the end he’ll only grin, then stick one of his fingers in your eye.
Older children aren’t much better. In spite of what you see on Leave It to Beaver reruns all the time, it’s very difficult to have a conversation with them, let alone one in which you actually get to pass along a Value. For example, whereas a conversation between Ward and the Beav would proceed something like this—
WARD: Do you understand now why it was wrong for you to tell Mrs. Miller that you weren’t responsible for breaking her window?
THE BEAV: Sure, Dad. I guess I just wasn’t using the old noggin.
—the same conversation at our house would sound more like this—
ME: Do you understand now why it was wrong for you to tell Mrs. Miller that you weren’t responsible for breaking her window?
MY KID: Hey, Mom, can we check out a video tonight?
One of the biggest hindrances to communication is the whole male/female thing. Men and women may use the same words all right, [p.21]but they most certainly do not mean the same things by them. Indeed, we have a little story in our family that vividly illustrates this point.
When my parents were first married, they very stupidly decided not to give each other A SINGLE THING for Christmas so they could save a little money. Of course, what my mother figured this actually meant is that she would scrimp and save and dip heavily into the grocery fund to buy my father manly sweaters and colognes to surprise him with on Christmas morning. She, on the other hand, fully expected him to run out just like that girl in The Gift of the Magi and cut off all his hair so he could afford to buy her something useless but sweet in return.
My father, being of the male persuasion, had a slightly different interpretation of the whole situation. He wanted to give my mother a gift, it’s true, but since they’d both said in plain American English they weren’t going to give one another presents, he’d better buck up and do the honorable thing by observing his end of the bargain. Well, naturally you can imagine what a fiasco Christmas was when my mother woke up and realized to her complete horror that my father still had all his own hair! You can, I’m sure, figure out the rest of the story on your own.
“Men are fine with the text,” she now says. “It’s just the subtext they have trouble with.”
Of course, a surefire way to screw up the communication process for me personally is to introduce technology of any kind, including the telephone. I really, really hate my telephone. People I don’t know are always calling me up at dinnertime, asking me if I want to buy (a) light bulbs and (b) tickets to charity magic shows. At least I get to talk to real human beings in these cases. What really fries me is when someone has their computer call me, offering me good deals on condo time shares and so forth. Apparently I have made a big enough stink about this that my children now think that computerized telephone solicitations of any kind are evil and that they should hang up and flee the room the minute they receive one.
This belief, in fact, was the cause of our family’s latest Telephone Trauma.
I was in Ogden and desperately needed to touch base with my babysitter at home. I followed the instructions on the pay phone to place a collect call and discovered that sometime in the last decade [p.22]this entire process has been mechanized so that a recording asks the party at home whether or not they will accept the charge. Unfortunately, for me, my kids—not the babysitter—kept (a) answering the phone and (b) hanging it up before I could talk to them. Finally I got through to a real live operator and asked her to place the call for me because my kids at home just didn’t get it. Philip answered when she called.
“Will you accept a long distance call from Ann Cannon?” the operator asked him.
“She isn’t here right now,” he told her.
Meanwhile I started shouting in the background over the operator’s polite, measured tones. “JUST SAY YES, PHILIP! JUST SAY YES!”
The operator, sensing my mounting hysteria, tried a different approach. “Would you like to talk to your mother?”
That’s when Philip—my first-born child, flesh of my flesh, light of my life and so on—
paused, then answered, “Not really.”
Well, I should have known we were not destined to communicate that afternoon: he’s young, I’m old; he’s a guy, I’m a girl; he says tomato, I say tomato; we were on a telephone.
Need I say more?