Wednesday, February 29, 2012
The Art of Role Modeling
Over the years we’ve crammed a lifetime of intentional training into our children, which we’re eager to shrae in this blog. But despite our best efforts, the most valuable life skills our kids learned from us haven’t been a result of our brilliantly planned, scheduled, and structured teaching. Instead, they’ve absorbed both good and bad skills by osmosis. Whether it’s the noble and courageous act of reaching out to someone who’s suffering, or leaving the empty milk containers in the refrigerator, they learned it without our direct instruction. As they interact with us, watching and learning from our examples, they begin to emulate us. In times of crisis or uncertainty, they’ll draw on those household experiences and examples they’ve had growing up, and then use them to make critical and life changing decisions. For better or worse, we’re their role models.
Because our actions have so much influence in our kid’s lives, our lifestyles are critical to raising successful children. When we want our children to be kind, moral, generous, responsible, healthy, and purposeful, we need to first display those characteristics in our own lives. No amount of lecturing on healthy eating and exercise is going to sink into them if we mumble it from the couch through handfuls of potato chips. Every time the two of us talk about the changes we want to see in our children’s behavior, we have to re-evaluate our own lives. Are we parents living the lifestyle we want to pass on to our children? While our kids were preschoolers, we would casually throw around the phrase, “I hate it when that happens.” Eventually, our children began to tell us that they hated objects, activities, and even people, which is pretty strong language for preschoolers. When we asked them if their feelings were really that strong, they told us that they didn’t truly hate anything or anyone, but were just using words that they’d heard us using. We decided that “hate” would be a “bad word” in our house for a while, and shortly after we stopped using it, the kids did too.
Are we kind and generous in our interactions with ourselves and other people, or are we self-serving? Are we exercising and eating right, or are we stuffing ourselves with junk food in front of the television? Do we establish goals and pursue them with discipline, or do we wander through life without purpose? Is our language wholesome, and our communication free from deception? Do we take responsibility for our actions? Do we love each other unconditionally and selflessly? Do we put in the work to stay married for the rest of our lives? Do we fight without shouting, calling each other names, or using other hurtful tactics? Do we honor our agreements? Do we have our addictions and anger under control?
These are the aspects of successful childrearing that we can’t teach to our children through lectures. We have to live the way we want our kids to live, and not just when we think they can see and hear us. If we want our children to have admirable character, we have to become adults of good character. Kids are too smart, and will see through our ingenuous attempts to fake good character. Some friends of ours had a toddler who was tightly bonded to his purple dinosaur plush toy, which they misplaced right before an airplane trip. In exasperation, the mother exclaimed, “Where is that little purple s**t?” Do you know what that toddler called his plush toy for months afterward, including every time he saw the character on television? You guessed it, everywhere he went, he called it “Purple s**t.”
Rick has been through several breakfast “phases” since the kids have been old enough to prepare their own breakfasts. For a while, he was eating peanut butter on toast for breakfast, and we suddenly noticed we weren’t going through any cold cereal, but were using a lot of peanut butter and bread. Then Rick began microwaving an egg in a bowl for breakfast, and suddenly all the kids were microwaving eggs for breakfast. The same thing happened when he started eating yogurt for breakfast, and again when he returned to cold cereal. For a while, we had extra leftovers, so Rick started re-heating leftovers for breakfast, until the kids started cleaning them out for their own breakfasts. Lately, we’d returned to cold cereal and milk again, but Rick started pouring yogurt over his cereal instead of milk. The other day, we discovered that a gallon of milk had gone bad, but we were out of yogurt again. It seems that the older two kids were pouring yogurt on their breakfast cereal.
Once the kids were old enough to serve themselves breakfast, we began stocking cold breakfast cereal in the pantry, and gallons of milk in the refrigerator, under the assumption that they would eat cereal and milk for breakfast. We never told them to eat toast, or eggs, or yogurt, or leftovers. They just picked it up from Rick on their own. If they are imitating us in such trivial things as breakfast foods, what truly good and bad habits are they catching from us? We parents need to have good character, so our children can catch it from us. We need to be the kind of people we want our children to become. We need to take a deep look at our own motivations, thoughts, and actions, and Rick needs to start eating vegetables for breakfast.