Years ago, when my own children were in elementary school, I recall being frustrated frequently with child-rearing issues. My children did not always behave as I thought they should and respond to me the way I wanted them to. I was always looking for what technique or parenting strategy might work. I had read numerous books with topics ranging from sleep schedules and potty training to doing chores and getting along with siblings. I continually found myself with new challenges every time one of them hit a new stage of development.
One hot June day, my husband and I were driving our son to summer camp. I was pondering (and silently praying) yet again, about how to handle the children. As I stared out the passenger window, suddenly this thought bubbled up in my mind, “It’s not what you do; it’s who you are.”
On its surface, that statement may not sound groundbreaking; but for me, it was transformative. And not always pleasant. The point was not the next useful strategy in parenting; the point was the person I was and the life I was living in front of my children. Be the person you want your child to become seemed to be the message. My husband and I have been parents long enough to see that our shortcomings do show up in our children: procrastination, messy closets, hard-headedness, over-committing…just to name a few. We never told our children to over-schedule themselves or tend toward running late; in fact, we told them not to, but that is what they saw in us and it sometimes shows up in them.
My wonderful country grandmother, who wisely reared five children and was a schoolteacher herself, used to say, “More is caught than taught.” How true. In the world of education, we call this ‘modeling’. We show our students examples of what a good lab report or essay looks like. In English class, I write with them or show them my own work (this blog, for example) but we are modeling way more than we realize and purposefully intend. That thought merits some reflective thinking for us as teachers and parents.
If I want my students to be on time to class and ready to work when they get here, am I? If I want them to be interested and engaged in the material, am I ? If I tell them to use their time well and get their rest at night, do I? If I encourage them to set goals and accept challenges, am I still doing that?
I reminded myself and my husband frequently through the teenage years with our children: “You can’t fool a teenager.” They may not be able to articulate what they see or don’t see in our lives, but they can spot a fake and they rebel against inauthenticity in the adults in their lives. We should constantly be asking ourselves some questions as we lead them through the treacherous waters of adolescence: Are we giving our best efforts to our jobs, homes, and relationships? Are we managing our time and personal lives well? Do they see us trusting rather than worrying, or are we anxiety-laden while we chastise them for it? When we are wrong or make a mistake, can we own it? Can we ask their forgiveness? When we are right, can we stand our ground and let go of their favor and approval of us? Are we demanding they be something that we are not – or were not at their ages?
Yes, I know that we are answering that last question, “But I don’t want my kids to make the mistakes I did; I want them to be better than I was.” That’s a noble goal, so are we willing to then share our stories of failure or struggle, to let them learn from our own bad examples? It was our goal at our house – that our kids do better in high school than we did, but then my husband’s mother conveniently found his tenth grade report card the very semester that our son was slugging through geometry with a “B” while his father stayed on his case constantly about his level of effort.
Dad’s “C” from geometry in 1978 was kind of hard to explain.