Walk the talk. Show, don’t tell. Values are caught, not taught—all variations of one theme: A good example is essential for good parenting.
No doubt, if you don’t strive to live what you give, who knows what you’ll get? Like heat-seeking missiles, kids lock in on inconsistencies and double standards. Rare is the parent who has never been accosted with, “Why do I have to if you don’t?” or, “You tell me to show you respect, but you don’t show it to me,” or, “Maybe you should look at yourself.” Owww.
Teaching by example forms a durable base from which to form character. It is the base, but alone it won’t raise the kind of person you want. Being a moral adult is fundamental to teaching kids morals. But it is not sufﬁcient, in and of itself.
Parents tell me of their former belief that by being a model for their children, they would follow. Talk nice to them, and they’ll talk nice to you. Show generosity to a daughter, and she’ll show it to her little sister. Keep the house clean, and a teen will keep his room clean.
Admirably, the adults tried hard to live up to their side of the equation. The kids didn’t try nearly so hard to live up to their side. Is this a surprise? Kids aren’t typically moved by the same motives as parents.
Bluntly put, children are amateur and immature observers. In the short term, they aren’t always attracted to even the best of examples. Only as they move beyond childhood do they come to fully appreciate and emulate their parents’ ways. Much of good parenting doesn’t make its mark until years later.
My kids showed a bent for noticing my bad over my good. I could speak repeatedly with quality words like muse and visage and not once in passing did my kids try them out. Let one damn slip from my mouth, and cat-like quick they pounced, making my word theirs, temporarily anyway, until they got in trouble for talking like Dad.
In the youngest eyes, we are granted status worthy of copying. As the teenage years approach, we lose some of that. Merely because we old folks do it, it’s not cool. An attitude forms: Not like Mom or Dad. Fortunately, most kids outgrow that attitude. Not because we get cooler with age, but because they get smarter with age.
I ask groups of parents, “Can you raise a child with a ‘do as I say, not as I do’ philosophy?”
“No,” they all reply.
Then I suggest, “Of course you can. And we all do.”
Let me qualify what sounds to be childrearing heresy. While living right makes for better parenting, none of us lives consistently right. Thus, we regularly must enforce standards we don’t always meet. If you smoke, is it OK for your teen to smoke? Your language can get coarse; does that permit your ten-year-old the same self-expression? When you get frustrated, you can act like a ﬁve-year-old. Does that free your ﬁveyear-old to act like you when he gets frustrated?
A thirty-six-year-old mother came to me with several complaints about her twelve-year-old son: He watches too much television, he eats too much, and he’s lazy. We explored why Mom had allowed these habits. Conclusion: “I watch too much television, I eat too much, and I’m lazy.”
“Do you want your son to be like you?” I asked.
“Not in my bad habits,” she said.
“Then you will have to set some limits and enforce them, even though your personal self-discipline in these areas has been lacking.”
After twenty years of adulthood, Mom was still struggling to model mature behavior for her son, all the while believing she had little right to require better of him than she required for herself. My hope is that my kids reach beyond me in character. I don’t want to be their moral ceiling. That makes me responsible to guide and discipline them in directions I don’t always follow. And above all, to show them mercy for their human frailty, as I ask them to show me that same mercy for mine.
So the next time you hear something like, “You don’t do that,” don’t let that be the ﬁnal word. Respond, “You’re right. I should, and I’m working on it. Besides, I want you to be better than me.” That should make them mad.