“Shoulds” Be Banned!

“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.

Mom and The Brother in 1975 - Having Survived 20 more years of No "Shoulds"

“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.

45 thoughts on ““Shoulds” Be Banned!

  1. I would very much like to introduce your mother to mine–in hopes of getting through something of the positive thinking you’ve written about.
    No, I did not repeat my mother’s mistakes with my own chldren. I was sooo aware of “what I SHOULD not do” that I managed to NOT. LOL. Yep, there’s a “should”–just for fun.

    • Good for you White Buffalo. It takes a lot of effort to break the chain. I still catch myself wanting to slip into the non-action state the word elicits when I speak of government. “They should…” It emphasizes the feeling of powerlessness that politics can conjure!!

  2. Yup–no ‘shoulding’ all over yourself. Disallowed!

    Gosh, your mom was a wisened one!
    Lucky you.

    (and I, like your smartie brother, woulda dumped the water over the dishes just cuz I could….hahahahaha)

  3. Wise woman, that mom of yours.

    Running the domestic violence program meant that every month I had to reinforce in the volunteers that, when a victim asked, “What should I do?” . . . the correct response was, “You tell me.”

    NOT “you should get a restraining order” OR “you should kick his butt to the curb” OR “you should run away.”

    Just . . . “You know best. You tell me.”

    One of my favorite Shel Silverstein poems:

    Listen to the mustn’ts child. Listen to the don’ts.
    Listen to the shouldn’t haves, the impossibles, the won’ts.
    Listen to the never haves, then listen close to me.
    Anything can happen child. Anything can be.
    ~ Shel Silverstein

    • Surprising how much effort it can take to shift from a “should”. If you start catching yourself, you’ll really notice it in others. Especially the next time someone tells you what “you should” do.

  4. I have been reading a lot of parenting magazines on how to raise two boys.. They write that a mother should be able to hold her own and that way teach her boys the importance of self esteem.. So discipline and everything aside, I think this is an important thing I want to keep in mind.. 🙂
    Love the picture!!
    Thanks Amy 😉

    • Good for you, Heart. Your sons are very fortunate to have a mom like you. Yes, I like that photo because, in that shot, I see the respect that my brother had for our mother. Their respect for each other showed in many ways.

  5. Let me first say that I absolutely love the truths you share with us from your Mother and notice so many strong similarities to you from her, giving light to the fact that energy is passed on.
    On “shoulds” I had to learn this later in life and recall the exact moment. I was listening to a song titled “The Beauty of Gray” by Mental Jewelry: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMvyD9e1A30
    More than the issue of color came through, for me, because of the reference to this not being a “black and white” world. I began to give myself and others slack and my “shoulds” became les and less as I began to appreciate that our differences were not as strong as how we were alike and that in decision making there is a gray area that what is chosen may be neither right or wrong but just that: a decision. How much easier that lesson would have been had I had a role model such as your Mother helping to instill that in me earlier on. I’m sorry for the “shoulds” I have shed on others. Thank you, Amy.

    • Oh boy! What impact you have, my friend Leslie. First, thank for the video. I hadn’t seen it before. It does present even more than the issue of color. There is a lot of gray in life. It helps me remember the message I received that there is no right or wrong, only different. There is no better in the world, only different. It doesn’t matter when our eyes are opened, it’s great that it happened.

      Good for you being willing to change your views. All of us see when we can see. Once the eyes are open, we can develop x-ray vision and that can be a drag. Then we see too much and have to discern between acceptance and speaking up with Love. Avoidance, in all its regressive negativity, would be so much easier! :D. Thankfully, I’ve learned to only speak when I have the words and the Love. If either is missing, I wait.

      You’ve made your amends by changing your response and attitude, Leslie. That is the most sincere amends we can make – to do it differently as often as we can from now on. We’ll goof up at times, but we’ll catch ourselves sooner.

  6. Hi Amy – the response shows us that we all think this is one great post – your mother was some wise woman! Great read .. and I definitely must come back and read through again .. so necessary in today’s world and so right .. love it – thank you so much .. enjoy today .. Hilary

      • Hi Amy .. no you’re not – I’m working my way through things .. and actually since Mum’s been ill -I’ve softened, yet I have a great deal of extra things to do .. which I like to do – thank people etc .. I’m probably not very balanced – but I’ll get there! Cheers .. Hilary

  7. You grew up with a “should” ban? Wow! I grew up watching my mom beat herself with a should stick, then drag around the guilt and resentment she felt for not wanting to do what her self-generated shoulds told her was the “right” thing (though clearly, it wasn’t the right thing for her!). It’s been a long road for me, learning to change that pattern for myself.

    Funny that I’d never seen “should” as a fence sitting thing. In the context of our home, it mostly seemed to be about making oneself feel bad about one’s own desires.

    (Totally agree with you and your mom about withholding the “you should.” Who am I to say what’s best for anyone else? )

    • What is that Western song or saying? “When Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” As a kid, if Mom was upset about something, I felt I needed to do or be something to fix it. I’d even get mad at her for being upset – because I didn’t know what to do. It was always a relief when she would finally let us know that things would be okay. So I can understand how off-balancing it would be if that was an on-going situation. Glad you have learned that that pattern does not have to be yours.

      Desiring something does not necessarily mean it needs to be done in the moment. I’m not a procrastinator, but I will decide that I will take action later. I’ve learned that I can trust myself. All of a sudden the mood hits and even without a plan, I get it done.

  8. Your mum was so wise, it had never crossed my mind to analyse that word and the power and effect it has. Words are very powerful, I know that (just stopped myself from saying “I should know that” 😉

    • Congrats, Alannah, for catching yourself. People in my life who have learned this from me are continuously stumbling over the word. The good thing? They are able to catch themselves and see the self-abuse the word inflicts. When they slip and say “You should” to me, I’m known for saying, “Thank you. I’m delighted to know what I SHOULD do.”

      Obviously, they love catching me in a should. As I said in another comment, it can slip out when I am talking about something political. It shows me I’m feeling powerless. There’s always something we can do…it’s a matter of doing it.

  9. Great literary lesson May.
    You made me realize that ‘should’ is a dictatorial word and ‘must’ is a better replacement. At least ‘must’ is a suggestion word right?

    • Oh Poch, we tried substituting “must” and “have to”. We did not get away with it. To mother, that was merely switching deck chairs on the Titanic.

      By the way, I’ve been thinking of you. I’ve been learning about Jackfruit. I read that you have that fruit in your country. Do you like it? I think one of my Bucket List items is to taste every fruit in the world!

      • Hi Amy and Poch .. I couldn’t help but stop and ask if either of you have tasted Babacao .. champagne fruit to my senses … my post here explains better than I can rewrite here …

        If you’re trying all the fruits in the world here is definitely one you (should – strike thru!) can try!! I think it’s so delicate they don’t travel well – sad really …. and even though they were grown in Guernsey .. I’m not sure they’re available anywhere – except immediately next to the Babacao grove.

        And I eliminated a shoulda … yea .. cheers Hilary

        • Suspect that one needs to travel to the country where the fruit is grown. That would assure authentic taste. So much of our exotic fruit is shipped here and when we can eat fruit from the tree, the difference in taste is astonishing.

          Well done, Hilary!

      • Hi Amy and Hilary,
        Yes, we have Jackfruit (Durian) here and it’s very delicious and rare.
        But it turns off most people when the fruit isn’t processed yet. It stinks like skunk!

        I haven’t heard of Babacao yet but I’ll do a search for it and get back to you.

    • Hi Pochp – I’ve never tried Durian .. one day .. but check my post out for Babacao .. I looked around quite extensively .. and have a book here on it – it was grown in Guernsey, Channel Islands in the 80s .. but must just be available as Amy suggests, because it doesn’t travel well, only in the home-growing country … and there it is delicious!!

      If you find anything extra .. always good to know about it though .. have a fun day .. cheers Hilary

  10. I have to agree with your mom, not exactly about the “I should” part, but in general, that parents need to help their children and guide them and few words are really confusing to use! I have words that I avoid using. I never for example say “good bye”, I always say “see you later” … it doesn’t make you feel like you’re loosing someone when you have to say these words! Liked that post Amy, and the picture of your family is very sweet!

  11. This reminds me that we were always told at school never to use the expression “I can’t” – first of all “can’t” is not a word but also we CAN “do anything if we put our minds to it”.

    Thanks for sharing your mother’s wisdom with us – sounds like she knew what she was talking about! 😀 xx

  12. That scene in the kitchen made me giggle. It could have easily been my brother and me. Even when we’d run out of things to quarrel over, we’d keep at it. My mom says one of her favorites was when I would whine, “M-o-m, he’s looking at me funny” LOL

    Now I’m trying to think if I have used “should’ with my daughter. I’m pretty sure I haven’t, but I will definitely be more cognizant moving forward. Thanks for sharing this great story, and your mom’s wisdom.

    Stopping by from TRDC

    • Hi Elizabeth – thank you for dropping by and commenting. I suspect the kitchen scene is one most of us know! 🙂 I visited your site and since I am not a mom, I don’t qualify for the “Pledge”, but I hail you for standing up and speaking out! Bravo.

    • It’s good to hear that “should” rankles someone else besides those of us who experienced my mother. If “shoulds” were balloons, I’d have a long, sharp pin ready for action!

  13. I agree your mum was ahead of her time. Throughout my life, I’ve been, and still am, surrounded by people who tell me I should do/be/have this or that. I now tell people there is no 1 right way; that outside work, you don’t have to do certain things in a certain way. I do understand it’s not easy and simple to rid oneself of years of this conditioning. Thanks for sharing this.

  14. Fantastic! Very inspiring as always. Parents are always the first to influence their children, so it’s great that your mom made such an impact on you. I totally agree with her, too. I don’t like the word “should” either… it’s a burden to us all!

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