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The image of a plate of spilled toothpaste became a powerful, viral metaphor for parents when one mom explained how she used the simple household item to teach her daughter about the power of her words.
In a Facebook post that has been shared 1.8 million times since she first posted it in 2016, Amy Beth Gardner of Cleveland, Tennessee, wrote about something special she did to prepare her oldest daughter for middle school. She asked daughter Breonna, then 11, to squeeze toothpaste onto a plate, then asked her to put the paste back into the tube. When her daughter protested, Gardner told her to remember the plate of toothpaste for the rest of her life. "Just like this toothpaste, once the words leave your mouth, you can't take them back," she said.
While the metaphor — how a squeezed tube of toothpaste represents words leaving our control — is not original, Gardner said the idea to teach it to her daughter as part of their preparation for her first day of middle school seemed particularly important. "I came up with the it as I was brushing my teeth the other night," Gardner told TODAY Parents. "I had been thinking for weeks about how my daughter was entering middle school and how I wanted to prepare her as best as I could."
So after finishing all the normal back-to-school rituals with Breonna — "decorating her locker, choosing a uniform for the first day, and even surprising her at bedtime with a new backpack" — Gardner said, "Right before she went to sleep, I told her I wanted to talk to her about words and how she was becoming more and more responsible for her words."
"As you go into middle school, you are about to see just how much weight your words carry," Gardner told Breonna, according to her post. "You are going to have the opportunity to use your words to hurt, demean, slander and wound others. You are also going to have the opportunity to use your words to heal, encourage, inspire and love others."
Gardner encouraged her daughter to use her words carefully. "Decide tonight that you are going to be a life-giver in middle school. Be known for your gentleness and compassion. Use your life to give life to a world that so desperately needs it. You will never, ever regret choosing kindness," she said.
Gardner said that Breonna understood the metaphor, and the two spent time discussing examples of times when Gardner herself had used her words for good or harm. "As a parent, I want Breonna to draw from my strengths and learn from my weaknesses," said Gardner, who adopted Breonna and her younger sister, Bridgett, with her husband Paul after foster parenting them beginning in 2014.
Because of their rough start in life before she and her husband met them, Gardner said she is careful to pay extra attention to Breonna's emotional development, but her practices might be helpful to any parent of an adolescent.
"Each morning when I go to wake Breonna up, I take a few minutes before we get busy with breakfast and rushing out the door to school to tell her how much I believe in her, how important she is to me, how valuable her life is," said Gardner. "I know that, as she becomes a pre-teen and teenager, the world is going to tell her what to believe about herself. I want her to hear my voice first each morning telling her what I see in her and how proud I am of her."
Editor's note: This article was first published on August 17, 2016, and has been updated.