“I looked you up on google,” my daughter said a few weeks ago. I froze, arranging my face as nonchalantly as I could: “Oh really? What did you find?” “You’ve written a LOT of articles,” she observed, and paused a beat: “..and a LOOOTTT of articles about parenting.” She looked at me pointedly.
Yes. Yes, I’ve written a lot about parenting – it’s been a searingly sharp tool of character chiseling in the hands of God at times, and I feel the burden of raising kids of character and the Kingdom keenly. But my kids are not object lessons, and I don’t ever want them to feel that. “Did you read any of them?” I asked, “and if so, how did you feel about them?”
She felt fine. Good. Just kinda interesting to her that her mom–whom she knows from early morning under-cover snuggles and cooking in our pajamas and wrestling over homework—is also a mom on the internet, and was there continuity between those two? She seemed satisfied that there was, and I was relieved.
But I was also sobered. Knowing that my kids have moved into the realm of being actual readers of what I’m writing has heightened my awareness as a writer. The possibility of being overheard is always a good editor for our words, though: that’s why anonymous comments on the internet are so much meaner than things people would put their name to, or say in person. Ecclesiastes 7:21-22 offers this gem (in a chapter filled with truth bombs – seriously, I think Ecclesiastes 7 might be the most nutrient rich life advice chapter in Scripture):
Don’t eavesdrop on others — you may hear your servant curse you. For you know how often you yourself have cursed others.
How we talk about others can and will be overheard – we’d do well to be aware of that, and show charity and kindness regardless of the size or secrecy of our audience.
This, of course, turns the spotlight directly on the issue of how we tailor our conversations to our audience. There’s wisdom in doing this: we edit adult themes and concerns out of conversation when we’re within earshot of children, we understand that there are times and places and context for certain conversations (let’s not get into the depths of our marital spat on the bleachers while watching kids play basketball, for example.) We know that there are some situations where we can make a joke to connect with a crowd which would go down like a lead balloon (or worse, strike like a bullet) with others.
I became aware of this again recently attending a conference attended by thousands of women, and a handful of men. It was girl-time, and it was good, but I did pause a couple times just noticing the weirdness of men being in the room while we laughed and cried about girl stuff: hormones and mothering and how we women all like to go to the bathroom in groups. There was nothing dangerous or distasteful at all – but some of it definitely wouldn’t have been said if it was a mixed audience, and it made me think. The men in the room were gracious and supportive —their demeanor acknowledging this was a women’s conference and they were guests — but I wondered if they might feel a little out.
I wondered, too, about how this was a picture of what it’s been like as women are breaking the glass ceiling and entering into spaces and roles that traditionally were all male (or predominantly male) in culture: government and C-suite boards and directorships. Was part of the “banter” of the room just guy-talk about golf and the stresses of family life or whatever that helped everyone bond before they got down to business (just as the “we all pee together” joke was bonding banter before we considered the serious stuff of Scripture and calling?) Is the discomfort felt at having women join those spaces and realizing the audience is now different so the conversation needs to change similar to the awareness I felt at having men in the room at a women’s conference? Maybe. The parallels are imperfect, but it made me think:
When we realise our audience is wider, we have to select out words that much more carefully. Our jokes can’t have a target (or if they do, it’s probably best if it’s ourselves). We need to think wisely about what we draw in terms of social currency (we can’t continually find common ground about the stresses of raising small children in a room where many don’t have kids, for example). In many ways, thinking about who might be listening means I need to be more circumspect, more creative, more generous than my default settings may have been. If we realize men might be listening, we need to think about every joke we tell in an all-female book club. No cheap shots. Ditto with men talking among themselves. If we realize people with different political convictions might see any comment we make on social media, it should curb us from making broad generalizations or damning others as dummies.
It is, in short, a really great exercise in thinking about how to LOVE people. To love anyone who might be listening. “Let everything you say be good and helpful,” says Ephesians 4:29, “so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.” Let people overhear us praising them. Let our friends overhear us saying upbuilding things about their choices and their character. Let our neighbors overhear us speaking graciously about people we disagree with. And let my children, should they google me, find words about parenting which bless them.