- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2000

I rarely watch television. For me, TV's primary function is to keep me up to date on the weather forecast so I can veto my children's wardrobe choices based on intelligence rather than taste. There are, however, a few "must see" shows I try to catch after the evening's dinner, homework and bedtime hubbub has died down.

"The West Wing" is one of those shows, and I was watching it the other night. Luxuriating in a rare moment when the rest of the household was asleep, I was annoyed when the phone rang just as a chunk of the White House ceiling fell on the head of one of the characters.

The caller was my mother. "The West Wing" also is one of her favorite shows. She asked me what that scene reminded me of.

"The nail?" I asked.

"That's right, the nail," she said and hung up. It's funny how those two words connected us across time and distance to a miscommunication from long ago.

My sister was born when I was 9 years old, and my parents decided to renovate the attic to better contain their growing family. One day when my mother was caring for my baby sister, I came into her room to announce calmly that a nail was on my bed. Because my message was hardly compelling, my mother shooed me away, promising to look at it later.

She therefore was surprised when I returned soon to give her the additional information that it was "a really big nail."

After more entreaties that she really needed to put down the baby and come see the nail, my mother followed me into my room. As soon as she opened the door, she screamed. Not only was there a nail on my bed, but the entire floor was covered in Sheetrock and debris. Most important, the lower half of the contractor renovating the attic was dangling from the ceiling, and he was moaning for help. He had stepped on a weak spot in the attic floor and had fallen through.

That incident helped my mother discover the key to decoding my hidden messages. Bad news had to be multiplied by 10. Good news had to be divided by the same number to extricate the nugget of information from the obscuring haze of exaggeration. When things went well, it was "the best day of my life"; if I met a new friend, that person became "my best friend ever."

I told this story to a friend, and she confirmed my theory with her own childhood experience only in her case, her mother incorrectly diluted her messages.

When my friend was young, she ran to her mother to report urgently that the stove was "on fire." Her mother assumed she was using inexact language to sensationalize the fact that the burners were glowing red.

"No, no," my friend insisted. "The stove is on fire."

When her mother finally followed her into the kitchen, she was surprised to see the stove engulfed in flames. From then on, her daughter's words held much more credibility for her.

I find that my children follow my pattern by verbally accentuating the positive and downplaying the negative. When my older son comes home from school and reports he did "OK" on a test, I know it was a disaster.

Wildly enthusiastic statements also are rarely accurate. If my daughter requests permission to go on an outing because "every single person in the school" is going, I know the extravagant statement bears closer scrutiny.

"Everyone is going?" I ask. "Is Jenny?"

"Well, no," my daughter admits.

"Is Kathy?"

"No, she can't."

"Does anyone in your class actually have permission from their parents to go?" I finally demand, only to find out that if I give my permission, maybe one of her friends will be able to talk her parents into letting her go, too.

Communication is easiest with my younger daughter, who not only gives me a levelheaded assessment of events both good and bad but also clues me in when the situation veers from reality into fantasy.

"Mom, when you come into the room, pretend you can't find me," she asks.

"Oh my goodness, where is she," I shout as I come into her room and see her small form hiding under her covers. "She must have been stolen by space aliens."

"Calm down, Mom. I'm just under the covers," she says, popping out to reassure me. "I didn't tell you to pretend anything about space aliens."

Paula Gray Hunker, who works from home, is the mother of four children, the bemused wife of her amazing (but true) husband and a staff writer for the Family Times. She welcomes comments, suggestions and stories from her readers. She can be reached by mail at The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave., NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; by phone at 202/636-4897; by fax at 610/351-1791; or by e-mail (hunkerc@erols.com). Her column can also be found on The Washington Times' Web site (www.washtimes.com).

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