I teacher friend tells a story about a kindergartener who had to be sent home because he would not stop saying the F-word. When his mother was contacted, she said “I told him to stop sayin’ that f(*&in’ word!” Does anyone wonder where he learned it?
“What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson) – or in this case, I suppose it’s “I can hear what you tell your kid not to say.” I think a more accurate quote for parents would be “Who you are speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”
I’ve learned that as a parent, my own behavior sets the bar of what my children assume is normal. No matter what I tell them, they are not going to act better than I do, but probably slightly worse.
Parents, who we are creates a set of assumptions by which our children conduct their lives. We create a framework of normalcy that may never be openly recognized, but it is indelible.
“Who we are” is made up of our decisions. From huge issues like whether to be religious, whether and how many children to have, or who to marry, to day-to-day things like the tone of voice we choose to use when talking to our spouse, what to wear, or what to cook for dinner. Whether we like it or not, our children are listening and watching us like hawks. Teachers of young children can tell you that they find out all sorts of interesting things the kids probably weren’t supposed to tell. We cannot hide ourselves from our children. Even when we think we are hiding them well, our children see our faults. The fact that we have undesirable habits makes it somehow OK for our children to pick them up, no matter what we say.
If a dad speaks to his wife with disdain and condescension, then his daughter, when she finds a man who treats her the same, will feel very comfortable – it is normal for her. If a mother is passive aggressive, her daughter will have to learn to recognize the behavior before she can even begin to fight the tendency in herself – it just seems like the normal way to react.
The good news for adults is that we can begin to recognize and acknowledge that the bad behavior our parents exhibited was bad, not normal, and we don’t have to repeat it. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but as we become adults, we don’t have to stay there in the shade of the tree. With effort, and maybe some therapy, we can find a place in the sun.
Our challenge is to be the kind of person we want our children to grow up to be. We absolutely cannot underestimate the power of our example. Little eyes and ears are with us all the time, and every action we take teaches them something.