Owing to a pernicious case of pinkeye, I just spent several blissful days holed up with Violet. Even that sweetest of little ladies is persona non grata in public when cursed with conjunctivitis. Our sequestration was not specifically productive for my caseload or her schoolwork, but that is not the only measure of achievement. Were our financial success measured in giggles, we would be awash in lucre. Interspersed with, and perhaps inspired by, the many hours of silliness were revelations that revealed the depth of Violet’s humor and intelligence.
A grammatically correct household, we reverentially maintain the distinction between “can” and “may,” preserving the line between ability and permission that is sacrosanct to parents of a certain mind. Insisting on the use of “may” to seek authorization helps children understand that though they could theoretically accomplish something, it might not be the best idea to do so. A child might be physically able to stand up from the table, but is not allowed to be excused because her grandfather still has food on his plate and stories on the tip of his tongue.
This approach is perhaps tedious to youth and adult alike. But proper speech is highly relevant, it being the foundation for the polite exchange of ideas. It is no coincidence that the decline in formal diction is mirrored by a descent into vehement polarity. Words are not simply random; they are ciphers for larger issues. Transposing seemingly synonymous words is not always a harmless error.
Consider the triumvirate of “can,” “may,” and “should.” We teach our kids that they can do anything to which they set their mind. Reality limits these possibilities, but there is still a wide swath of what can be accomplished. When they are younger, our children need assistance to distinguish between that which can be done and what may be done. While one can make the steps necessary to get to the park to play with that other kid, one may not because that other child loves throwing sand in people’s faces and the house is now out of eye rinse.
As kids grow, they leave the constant presence of their parents and are subject to many outside influences. The opportunity to impose the external limitations inherent in “may” gives way to the need for the daughter to have the internal judgment necessary to evaluate whether she “should” do something. A child that reaches adolescence or adulthood thinking that “can” is the only necessary question is an unchecked id loosed on the world. Surely, you can think of multiple people who fit this description and you should remind yourself of their behavior the next time that you roll your eyes at correct grammar.
You can eat, but you should be mindful of what you put in your body. You can speak, but you should not use your voice to demean others. You can drive a car, but you should not do so while texting. You can ski that line, but you should dig a pit and discuss risks with your partners before dropping in. You can drop megatons of bombs on a recalcitrant enemy, but you should attempt diplomacy before engaging military options.
Of course, while separate words, their application can and should overlap. We can and should be kind to ourselves and our neighbors. We can and should do more to remedy the physical and social ills plaguing the globe. We can and should enjoy the ski season to come.