“Kids don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” -Jim Henson
It comes as no surprise to most parents that kids are little sponges. They pick up everything from language, mannerisms, and habits to beliefs, fears, and hang-ups all by watching the people they are around. The more they respect the person, the better they learn. The biggest impressions are often made unknowingly or unconsciously on the part of the parent. Possibly these habits, fears, or mannerisms exist in the parent without the parent even being aware of them. That is until the kid does something undesirable and the parent has to take a step back and wonder where this behavior came from. There is no better example of others being a reflection of us than our kids. Because we want the best for these little people and want them to thrive in an increasingly globalized and aware world, we want to teach them how to be good people. We want them to be outgoing and well-loved, deal with fear, disappointment, or adversity with grace, own their mistakes and learn, and make healthy choices even when we’re not there. Nagging them into submission is not going to work, though. In this case, we really do have to be the change we wish to see in the world. Everyday. Even when we haven’t had our coffee yet. Because those little people are always there. Watching. Learning.
One of the things we try to instill in our kids is how to treat people. In our house, we put a big emphasis on kindness: generosity, empathy, fairness and respect. So, we help our friends, throw lots of parties, and hold doors open for strangers. We express love often and in many different ways. We show appreciation, reciprocate kindnesses, and express gratitude. We do all of these things for the most part without being aware that we’re teaching any sort of lesson. We’re just being who we are. Where we sometimes fail is when we consciously try to teach. For example, when we try to teach respect. By-the-way, have you ever tried to define the word “respect” for a 5-year-old? I thought I knew what respect meant, but it turns out I had no idea. Something like being on time, which is a form of respect, is beyond the concept of one so young, but we try to instill that value anyway. Sometimes I’ll say, “We really have got to get going because it is important to be on time.” Which has the effect of slowing her down considerably. Then we really are running late and things get ugly. What kind of lesson do you think I’m teaching when I’m visibly frustrated, yell, shove things into her bag, march her out to the car, and slam the car door? I don’t think I’m very proud of what she learned there. What if we just made being on time a priority and did our best to honor it? She will learn respect in the same way she learned love, through example.
How to deal with fear, adversity, or disappointment with grace. Many of us never learned this lesson. For example, I was afraid of storms for most of my young adult life. In high school I would get fearful any time the clouds started to build up and darken. I was petrified any time the tornado siren went off, which it did from time to time in the summer. I learned this lesson from my mother who was also afraid of storms. We would get crowded down into the basement, one time into a small space under the stairs, and would have to wait until she gave the all clear to come out again. Of course, she was just trying to keep us safe, but it was very traumatic for me and followed me into adulthood. My husband had a very different lesson. His mom would have storm parties every time it was terribly windy or when there was a thunderstorm. So he learned to like storms and associate them with popcorn and treats. Guess which method we use in our house today.
Disappointment is a big deal in our children’s lives. They don’t have the experience to know that if they don’t get what they want right then, it doesn’t mean they won’t get it ever. So they act out their feelings in big ways. This can be frustrating for us because we worry that our child is becoming spoiled when she is having a fall-on-the-floor tantrum over a piece of candy. We can teach our kids about disappointment by letting them see us deal with disappointment gracefully ourselves, and in the mean time not judging them for their “childish” reactions. One example would be disappointment over cancelling a fun trip that you’ve been planning for awhile. Instead of reacting negatively, turn it into a lesson by finding something just as fun to do instead. They may even learn that alternate plans can be more fun than the original. Things always work out the way they are meant to, even if they seem unfortunate.
How we deal with adversity is critical. When we, as parents, are having a disagreement it is very important to be conscious of the little people who are listening. It doesn’t matter what your frustrations are, the bigger issue at hand is the lesson that is being taught. I believe it is healthy for kids to see parents argue if the adults can fight fairly and with grace. If done well, kids can learn how to negotiate a compromise and let an issue go without holding a grudge. Sound hard? It is. Especially since kids can pick up on subtle body language and facial expressions better than a police interrogator. A good rule of thumb is to be aware of what you are teaching at all times. If you think the situation is going to escalate beyond what is healthy, it might be good for all involved to agree to continue the argument at a later time when cooler heads prevail. You might learn something, too.
The next important lesson is how to make mistakes. People don’t generally like to make mistakes. I know I have been afraid of trying something new because I might embarrass myself with a silly mistake. This has held me back from doing many things that may have been valuable experiences. I don’t want my daughter to be afraid of failing, so I try to encourage her to try new things and assure her that it’s okay to make mistakes. That’s how we learn. We can model mistake-making for our kids. We can allow them to see us make mistakes, admit fault, and learn from it. It is okay for our kids to know that we are not perfect and we don’t know everything. Then they can see that it isn’t just them making mistakes, it’s us too, and it’s okay. It isn’t just about doing something wrong and fessing up, it’s an opportunity to learn. That turns a mistake from something bad to something good in a real way.
Lastly, we want our kids to make healthy choices even when we’re not around. My definition of a health encompasses the whole body, mind, and spirit, but for ease of example I’m only talking about food choices today. Admittedly, healthy food choices are super hard for little kids. Do you think they’re going to choose the sandwich on sprouted wheat bread with an apple, or the packet of M&M’s? As we said before, they don’t have much of a concept as to what may happen in the future. Likely if they choose the candy they will be hungry and may not feel very well later, but they’re in it for the instant gratification. Heck, many adults do this too! How many times have you known that you shouldn’t eat a certain thing because you’ll feel like crap later, but you do it anyway because, “Yum”? Nevertheless, school-aged kids should be able to make decent choices on their own. We had a talk with our kindergartener the other day about making healthy food choices. When I asked her what would be on a healthy plate, she said, “broccoli and chicken.” She’s such a good girl! She has had fairly decent modeling in the area of healthy eating her whole life. Likely, she even knows that she feels better if she eats better, although this may not be enough to motivate her in the face of candy. She also sees me authentically enjoying a wide variety of colorful vegetables and knows she has choices. She likes broccoli, peas, and carrots, but she doesn’t like “leafs”. Fair enough, you don’t have to eat the lettuce! I was worried about peer pressure and what the other kids thought was good or icky, but so far it hasn’t been a problem. Mostly because she doesn’t really care what other people think. She must have picked that up somewhere.
What else do kids learn just by watching us? Body image comes to mind. If a 5-year-old is worrying about the size of her butt, someone has modeled this behavior for her. It is critical to instill positive body imagery, especially in little girls because our society constantly bombards them with unrealistic expectations, but also in boys. The things we say to them are important, but the way we view ourselves may be even more important. It is my business to love and appreciate every part of my body, so I have a pretty positive body image. Now that I have a daughter I am extra conscious about how my body image effects her. Even I have my bad days but, because I’m thinking about her welfare, I clean up my act pretty quickly.
“He said, ‘I’ve been watching you, Dad, ain’t that cool? I’m your buckaroo, I wanna be like you…We go back home, and I went to the barn, I bowed my head, and I prayed real hard. Said, ‘Lord, please help me help my stupid self.'”
What about our views on money? Do we treat money like it’s a scarce commodity prone to flying away at any provocation? Do we have a good relationship with money, inviting it to stick around and work for us? Teaching kids to be smart with money involves modeling good behavior around money. Get out of debt guru Dave Ramsey and his daughter Racheal Cruz have a fantastic book all about this called Smart Money, Smart Kids. If we show kids that we can delay our gratification and save up for what we want, they will learn to save first and spend later. If we use a portion of our income for charity, they will see that and consider doing the same. Dave and Racheal counsel to involve kids in things like paying bills, giving, and saving so they can actually see it happening. Let them use their own money for things they want instead of buying it for them. I think this is a win-win. I don’t have to buy junk, and she learns about finances. Our policy for our 5-year-old is that she does her chores, earns money, and can spend her money on anything she wants. I have to hold myself back from advising her on frivolous choices. It’s her money, she gets to use it as she sees fit. If she wants something bigger she has to save up for it, which is a little more than she can take right now, but it’s a learning process.
All of these examples are meant to bring awareness to the little people in the room who suck in every little bit of information their eyes and ears can pick up. Some of the concepts are too big for them to process. Information gets sucked in and turns into an emotion or ethereal fog that takes continual molding to become concrete. Translation: one slip up isn’t going to make or break your kid. You get do overs. Any parent who has heard a foul word come out of a toddler’s mouth knows that kids can learn something without really knowing what it is all about or the proper way to use it! Keep in mind that the best way kids learn is through watching who you are and what you do on a daily basis. You have to show up! Be the example! How you deal with spilled milk or changed plans could teach them loads about how they should deal with their own anger or disappointment. Is it ok to show emotion in your house? Is it ok for adults to cry? Is it ok to be upset or even angry? In our house it is. I think it’s healthy to show appropriate emotion, but we strive to react with love and kindness rather than fear and intolerance in every aspect of our lives.
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Jim Henson, It’s Not Easy Being Green: And Other Things to Consider. https://www.amazon.com/Its-Not-Easy-Being-Green/dp/1401302424/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1504803760&sr=8-1&keywords=it%27s+not+easy+being+green+book
Rodney Atkins, Watching You. Lyrics available on Google Play. https://play.google.com/music/preview/Tun4mey5scwr7g7ko64amtqnylu?lyrics=1&utm_source=google&utm_medium=search&utm_campaign=lyrics&pcampaignid=kp-lyrics&u=0#
Dave Ramsey and Racheal Cruz, Smart Money, Smart Kids: Raising the Next Generation to Win with Money. https://www.amazon.com/Smart-Money-Kids-Raising-Generation/dp/1937077632/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1504890380&sr=1-1&keywords=smart+money+smart+kids