Right off the bat, parents mess up their children through language. No, I don't mean baby talk. I mean intelligible words which mean one thing to parents and something else to kids. I didn't realize this until son Steve turned nineteen and told me about the saw blade.
"What saw blade?" I asked.
"The saw blade in the sky, the one waiting to chop off my head and arms."
"Where did you get such an idea?"
"From you. You used to holler at me all the time: 'Steve! Pull your arms back inside the car before they get chopped off!' The school bus driver said it too: 'Keep your heads and arms inside the bus!'
"We were talking about tree limbs and passing cars, Steve, not saw blades."
"I know that now. I didn't then. Sometimes, I'd stick a finger out the window just to lure the saw down where I could see it. But I never could. I finally got brave enough to put my whole arm out the window. Nothing ever happened."
No wonder kids reach a point where they don't believe anything their parents say.
I have since discovered other areas of miscommunication.
"Keep your eyes peeled" could easily be misunderstood. Children are literal, you know.
Also "Keep an eye out." Now, how does one keep an eye out, I ask you? And why would one want to?
Consider the picture children conjure up when a parent says "There's a wolf at the door." They imagine there's a wolf at the door, of course. Wolves, we learned as children, eat little girls who visit their grandmothers. Wolves also eat cute little pigs singing inside their houses, unless the houses are very, very sturdy. It's a wonder any kid ventures outdoors.
Thinking back, I realize that I too was confused by things my parents said. I remember their concern when my older brother came home from school with athlete's foot. I envisioned a grotesquely enlarged foot bulging with muscles. I understood (or thought I did) that the ointment he used would prevent such unattractive growth. I did not understand why only one foot had the problem. Did my brother exercise one foot more than the other?
I knew "don't beat a dead horse" meant the discussion was over because from then on everyone quit arguing and ignored me, but I thought it was because they considered me an evil person. Anyone who would beat a dead horse was obviously evil. But I loved horses; why did my family think I would beat a dead one? At least this dilemma gave me something to think about besides the argument I'd just lost.
Children go through life with dreadful pictures in their minds: giant saws waiting to slice their limbs off, peeled eyeballs lying on the ground, wolves waiting hungrily at the door, people beating dead horses. And we wonder why teenagers are so messed up.