“You should be rinsing those dishes!” I told my pubescent brother whose face beamed with satisfaction whenever he annoyed me.
“Remember the rule!” How could our mother be reading a book at the other end of the house and know that my brother and I were about to throttle one another?
I shouted back, “I’m not going to dry another soapy dish! He should be rinsing them! Rinsing is part of the washer’s job!”
Mom’s voice again boomed across the living room, through the dining room and into the kitchen. “The rule is: We do not use the word ‘should’. We ESPECIALLY do not say ‘you should’.”
At ten years of age, I knew the dreaded rule. When my siblings and I hurled “shoulds” at one another, Mom would say, “The ban’s on!” This time was no exception. We were not allowed to speak another word until we could be civil to one another.
Fighting in silence meant body language and facial expressions that would make Jim Carey look like an amateur. Physical contact was a felony. Any hint of violence meant corporal punishment. Corporal punishment techniques changed from event to event. It inevitably touched on the single most important aspect of life. Like having a bicycle taken away for a week. Or, having to hoe the garden instead of going rafting with friends at the ever-fascinating slough.
Who could just stop fighting? Attempts at triangulation fell on deaf ears. “Mom, tell him to stop making dumb faces at me.” Silence.
Because mother taught school, black-belt classroom-control techniques had impact. Looking back, she owed us thanks for the unique and unending training ground we provided.
I plopped my prepubescent body heavily on a kitchen chair to cement my conviction to not touch a soapy dish. Suddenly the brother filled a pot with hot water that he streamed over the pile of soapy dishes creating small waterfalls that cascaded all over the counter and kitchen floor.
“Mom!” I said, “Come and see what your wonderful rule does to this bird brain.”
As I grew older, mother’s rule stuck. It created a challenge for me. Every time I heard ‘should’ spoken, I would cringe as a chemical reaction spilled through my body. Whenever anyone addressed me with “you should” my ears closed.
In my twenties, during a home visit, I asked Mom what precipitated the ‘should’ rule.
“I wanted my children to be able to make decisions. Words have incredible power and the word ‘should’ means the person using it is sitting on the fence. Saying ‘I should’ deems one inactive. Frozen. Doing nothing. Wishy-washy. Going nowhere.”
“What if the decision really is better not made at that time?”
“Give me an example,” Mom said.
“Let’s say I need to decide whether or not to go to the cabin for the weekend, but it’s Wednesday and I have the flu?”
“Then the decision is to not make a decision. That is valid. Quit waffling. Leave yourself alone so your body can heal.”
I saw her point. After all, her wisdom paid handsomely in my life. Decisions have not been difficult except when I’m hungry, sick or tired. Those are my no-decision time zones.
I continued, “Okay. What makes you so against ‘you should’?”
“We don’t have the right to decide what another person needs. Most often we don’t even know our own needs. How can we presume to tell someone else what is good for them?”
“Children need help from parents.”
“It can be done without saying ‘you should’. A parent either wants the child to do it or not. ‘You should’ is indecisive and confusing to a child.” Bingo. No wonder we are not a family of fence-sitters.
“There truly are times when we see things that other people can’t see about themselves.”
“Then suggest it with wording that does not imply that you know better. And if they disregard your question or suggestion, leave them alone.”
There was the reason my ears closed when I heard “you should”. It felt condescending and dis-empowering.
That discussion occurred years before Codependency became a condition known to the masses. As I read through Melody Beattie’s books listing the various traits of Codependents, I discovered her warnings against ‘shoulds’. I thanked my mother in silent awe.
Ahead of her time, Mom had not allowed us to ‘should’ on ourselves. Or each other.