What my daughter said after she smelled my morning breath

When I was in my early 20s, I took an etiquette class back home in Mississippi. Although I remember very few of the rules, one has always stuck with me: As a general rule, you should let people embarrass themselves.

So, for example, if someone has spinach in their teeth, a big piece of fuzz in their hair, or a trail of toilet paper flowing from the back of their pants, do not tell them. It doesn’t matter if they’re embarrassing themselves—if you’re the one who points it out, they’re going to associate the embarrassment with you and they’ll resent you for it. I don’t like that rule and thank goodness my daughter Layla doesn’t play by it.

One morning Layla came down the stairs and into the kitchen where I was making a protein shake. I had this love rush, so I bent over, looked her in the face, and told her how much I loved her. She scrunched up her nose, and in the middle of my declaration of love, she asked, “Did you brush your teeth?”

“Yes,” I said, furrowing my brow.

“Could you do it again?”

Even though she was just seven and she was my daughter, it embarrassed me a little that I had just choked her with my morning breath. But thank goodness she spared me from embarrassing myself when I went to work. My coworkers would’ve probably just stood there breathing as shallowly as they could, hoping the conversation would end as soon as possible.

As much as I may appreciate having people around who will tip me off when I’ve got bad breath, there’s one person whose negative feedback I often resist: Raquel, my wife. When she points out an uncomfortable truth–for example, how I sometimes dominate conversations–I want to shut her down (ironically). The way I do that is to blame her. It’s not my fault that I repeatedly interrupted others during conversations at the party. It’s her fault for being hypercritical.

In my best moments, however, I admit that Raquel’s got a point and thank her for bringing it to my attention (usually through gritted teeth). Why wouldn’t I thank her for her feedback? She’s closer to me than any other human, so she’s more likely to detect those areas where I need to make changes. I don’t want to go around embarrassing myself.

When our spouse points out ways in which we can grow, even if he or she does so imperfectly, it’s an opportunity to model our relationship with God, the One who knows us more intimately than anyone else. As Mike Mason describes it in his book, The Mystery of Marriage:

One of the hardest things in marriage is the feeling of being watched. It is the constant surveillance that can get to one, that can wear one down like a bright light shining in the eyes, and that leads inevitably to the crumbling of all defenses, all facades, all the customary shams and masquerades of personality… it makes scant difference whether the watcher be love or something more sinister. What is hard is the watchfulness.

It’s painful to be under the scope of our spouse’s examination. But if we are wise, we will lower our defenses and allow our spouse to be honest with us about the way our attitudes, words, and actions stink up the world around us. It may be embarrassing, but everyone around us will be grateful for it.

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