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Weighing Our Words Carefully

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Dear Dr. Respler: I am, Baruch Hashem, a healthy mother and grandmother who was recently trying to be helpful to my married daughter. After Shabbos my daughter, who has a large family, had many dishes piled in the sink. I planned on rinsing the dishes and placing them in the dishwasher, and then straightening up downstairs while she put her younger children to sleep. Aware of my plans my daughter, who loves me and means well, said, “Ma, please don’t work so hard. I will put the children to sleep, and then I can clean up and load the dishwasher quickly. I will do it quicker than you, and I want you to relax.”

I was hurt. I know that she really wanted me to take it easy, but suddenly I felt like an old, useless woman. Do you think my daughter was right? How can I tell her how I feel without hurting her?

My husband and I are planning to move in with my daughter, son-in-law and their children for Pesach. We always enjoy going there, but I do not feel good when I cannot be useful. I would like to help my daughter over Pesach, and would feel better if she allowed me to help her. Please advise me. A Healthy Grandmother

Dear Healthy Grandmother: Although your daughter’s words were said with derech eretz, her words were, in fact, considered ona’as devarim (hurtful speech). She appears to have meant no harm, while not understanding that what she said constitutes a type of ona’as devarim. For the record, an example of ona’as devarim is when one makes someone feel incompetent and undermines the person’s ability to be helpful. As it is written in the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation’s Positive Word Power: “Under the surface [of the given situation] was a message that cast doubt on your competence.”

This may sound mind-boggling to my readers, as I was astonished the first time I learned this.

Your daughter clearly meant to give you kavod and wanted to spare you from stacking the dishwasher and cleaning the house, which in her mind was overworking you. But this made you feel incompetent and caused you pain, even though you were obviously trying to be helpful. (As we age but still try to help others, we are aggrieved when rebuffed in our efforts.)

Since your daughter’s hurtful words were entirely unintentional, it is important that you not cause her pain in return. She may feel slighted if you tell her that you were hurt by her comment, especially since she apparently wants to treat you with derech eretz and be a good daughter. Set aside a mutually convenient, stress-free time for the two of you to discuss your feelings. A relaxing lunch in a restaurant when the children are in school would be a nice setting. Remember that a tranquil atmosphere is important, lessening the likelihood that any misunderstanding or misconstruing of words takes place.

During this proposed conversation, please be careful not to hurt your daughter and make sure to support her wish to protect and love you. Consider saying something like, “I know that you did not mean to be hurtful and that you love me, but I felt badly when you told me that I shouldn’t help you because you can do it faster.” Express clearly that you love her very much and that you do not want to upset her. Tell her that helping her is actually therapeutic for you. Explain that even though you may do things slower than her, you get immense satisfaction in being able to ease her burdens by assisting her with the chores.

An honest conversation will help make your daughter aware of your feelings and sensitize her to your wishes to be of help. This conversation should take place before Pesach, so that you can attempt to help her during the Yom Tov. Perhaps you can also aid her in preparing for Pesach by offering to purchase needed items. And if she and her family can use financial help during these challenging economic times, you might conclude that this might be a road you should travel. If she doesn’t need your monetary help, possibly just doing some of the food or children’s clothes shopping will be of help to her.

I am certain that you, as a sensitive, caring mother, will know the correct things to do to help your daughter before and during Pesach. What’s important is to keep the lines of communication open and to assure your daughter that you treasure your relationship with her, and that you appreciate her and her husband’s immense kavod for you and your husband.

Thank you for raising such an important topic before Pesach. Ona’as devarim is an action that many people transgress unintentionally. We all must try to think before we speak, and make an effort to only say things that will not be painful to others. As Pesach is a time when we are with family, it is sometimes difficult to be careful with our speech when in their company. I hope that we can all learn from your daughter’s innocuous comment and realize that even when we mean well, we must make sure that we do not say anything that offends or hurts others.

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