In lawyering, I have chosen a profession where words matter. In parenting, however, I have chosen a vocation where words really matter. I learned this lesson the hard way with my daughter Molly, some years ago.
Molly was beginning the second grade and was anxious, as kids often are at the outset of a new school year. As part of her bedtime routine, she would tell me anything that had troubled her during the day. I’d listen, then try my best to calm her fears.
I had no particular training for this, just an abiding love of the father-daughter time together, whatever the reason. Even when I traveled for work, I’d call Molly at her bedtime. It gave me a particular feeling of accomplishment whenever we, like a pilot and co-pilot in the cockpit, successfully got through our checklist. Only this time, I totally failed to lower the landing gear.
“Dad,” Molly asked uncertainly from her bed, “are there yetis here in North Carolina?”
“Sure, honey,” I answered, inching closer to her on her bed. A smarter man would have read the room: Her eyes were as large as dinner plates. Instead, I doubled down. “Why, would you like to see one this weekend?”
“No!” she exclaimed. “I learned about yetis in school today, but I didn’t think there were any around here.”
“Well not in the backyard or anything,” I clarified. “I mean, they’re not going to come up to the door at night while you’re sleeping. I just meant there’s probably a farm in the mountains nearby that keeps exotic game, and we can go pet one if you want.” The mix of nocturnal creeping and game-stalking I’d conjured brought her no joy, but still I didn’t notice. “It’ll be an adventure!”
“I would not like to do that,” Molly confirmed. “Not this weekend, or any weekend.” I said goodnight, gave Molly a kiss on the forehead, turned out the lights and thought nothing further of it. That is until the next day, when my wife called me mid-morning at work.
“I am picking up Molly at school,” she declared from her car. “She’s a hot mess. Somehow Molly got it in her head that there are yetis here in North Carolina. Any idea why she’d think that?”
“Because I told her so, when I tucked her in last night. That we could go look for yetis this weekend, even pet one. She didn’t seem interested.” It began to dawn on me something was amiss. “What’s the big deal? If she doesn’t want to see a yak, I won’t take her to see a yak.”
“Yetis aren’t yaks, you nitwit,” my wife responded. “You know the Abominable Snowman? That’s a yeti. A yak is not a yeti. A yak is a big, dumb ox. Like you.” She hung up unceremoniously, and that was that.
I’m not sure how I confused a yeti with a yak. Neither really figures prominently in my life. But it proved a teachable moment, for as the saying goes, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
Now I never use a word unless I’m absolutely sure of its meaning. This has made me a slightly better lawyer, and a much better father of anxious children.