Be Nice, You Rancid Little Punk!

frustration_cartoon.gif“JUST RELAX!” I snarl at my son.

Now, the perceptive reader has no doubt already noticed a smidgen of irony in this, just a soupçon of hypocrisy. I am admonishing my son to relax, when I am myself in no way relaxed. Loose and laid-back is a look difficult to pull off when you’re snarling.

Our oldest boy is a perfectionist, and suffers from intense and tearful frustration when unsuccessfully attempting a task – in this case writing six sentences about his Christmas holiday. He abhors the use of an eraser – he wants to get it right the very first time and if he doesn’t, and if, Lord forbid, he repeats his mistake, he descends into a downward spiral of self-loathing that leaves him in a state of near paralysis, obstructed by his own ineptitude and humiliated by his perceived failure. A week or so ago my wife tried to explain the saying about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, but he was unmoved.

He’s six. I’m not sure this degree of despair is entirely normal or healthy, but since in most every other way he appears an intelligent and well-adjusted little boy, I tend to think that medicating him or getting him into electro-shock therapy is unnecessary. The problem is, when he gets in this state it drives me absolutely mad. I want desperately for him to just relax, to take a deep breath and a step back, recognize the relative unimportance of the situation, and simply CALM DOWN DAMMIT.

Ordinarily I’m able to dip into my shallow reservoirs of patience and draw out enough self-control to quietly help extinguish the fires of my son’s frustrations. But sometimes I can’t. The fact that he lets himself get so upset makes me upset. His vexation vexes me, and at times I let my anger show.

Which brings me to my point. The old cliche “Do as I say, not as I do” applies here. “Example isn’t another way to teach, it’s the only way to teach,” said Albert Einstein, a father of three and considered by many to be a pretty smart guy. And while peers become more influential as a child gets older, parents still wield enormous influence throughout a child’s development, and one of the most difficult aspects of parenting is trying to actually be what you want your kids to become. Most of the attitudes, lifestyle choices, prejudices, fears, likes and dislikes, compassion, generosity, empathy, and general behavior that a child develops are going to come directly from his or her parents.

Which means, of course, that parental modeling is crucially important. Children are by nature observers and emulators – it’s how young lions learn how to hunt zebras, young chimps learn how to use sticks to catch termites, and young humans learn how to do pretty much everything. They watch you – consciously and unconsciously – much more closely than you might necessarily like, note your behavior and the consequences of your actions, and learn fundamental lessons from it.

That’s why hypocritical parenting just doesn’t cut it. “Why don’t you read a book?” you ask them, your eyes glued to the TV. “Eat your carrots,” you chide through a mouthful of chips and soda. Are you a courteous driver, or do you shout and sweat and swear at every ‘idiot’ on the road? Your kids are in the backseat, you know, watching you. Do you say, “I hate people who…”  instead of saying, “I don’t like it when people…”? Your kids are on the floor playing with their Legos, but they’re listening, you know. Do you roll your eyes when your spouse says something with which you disagree? They see that, you know. They’re watching – aaalways watching. Creepy little critters.

Pretty much everybody wants their children to be kind, loving, generous, active, inquisitive, responsible. So, although it’s not easy, that’s exactly what parents need to be. You can’t just say “Go out and play;” you need to get out there with them. If you want them to care about helping others, you can’t just write a check to charity – you need to involve them in the giving process, or take them volunteering, or have them hand that homeless man the sandwich you just bought for him. You can’t teach them to appreciate the natural world just by watching Animal Planet – you need to actually take them outside and share nature with them. And if they’re getting frustrated writing six sentences about their Christmas holiday, then shouting at them to CALM DOWN just might be counterproductive.

I have to constantly remind myself to set a good example. I have to tamp down my temper and not let the little annoyances and minor grievances of life with kids – and life in general – get to me. I have to seek out the joy and humor in our everyday existence and pass them on to my kids, to remember that I cannot teach what I do not practice. I have to recall that as far as my kids are concerned I am a leader, and to paraphrase John Quincy Adams, it is only by my actions that I can “inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more.” Or in the less lofty language of health and fitness guru Jack LaLanne, “If you want to change somebody, don’t preach to him. Set an example and shut up.”

23 thoughts on “Be Nice, You Rancid Little Punk!

  1. Pingback: Today Is Crap, But At Least Tomorrow Will Be Worse | Field Notes From Fatherhood

  2. Amen to that. I take my children to the library and read to them there. Then we bring home stacks of books for each member of the family – and we read them. After the library we go to the park next to the library and play together. Teaching by exampl isn’t a way to teach, it’s the only way (if you want to be effective) . Wonderful post.

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    • Thanks, mathmaster. I’m not much of a mathematician myself, so I appreciate people who are masters. You’re absolutely right – teaching by example is crucial. Some of my fondest childhood memories involve going to the library with my parent and choosing the perfect book. Now we have the entire New York Public Library accessible on my tablet, and my son can read whatever he wants at the click of a button. It’s not exactly the same, which I lament a bit, but it’s pretty cool nonetheless.

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  3. “Are you a courteous driver, or do you shout and sweat and swear at every ‘idiot’ on the road? Your kids are in the backseat, you know, watching you.” — aargh! Guilty as charged. Alright, alright, I definitely need to work on that one. Among others 🙂

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  4. Reblogged this on ryanwithegroup and commented:
    All I have to say is WOW. This is hit so head on in so many ways. I have tried to explane this to so many people before. These people are in business and personnel. In contrast people never want to change. I do not understand that although. I set a goal in life to be the best I can be, which means change, and strive to acheive it everyday.

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  5. Great post! I am reading this as I just realized my 7 year old has been sitting on the toilet for the last twenty minutes reading a book. Learn by example, sigh. I am fairly certain my husband is on the other toilet with a magazine.

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  6. I have to say, your post is really sincere. Sometimes it´s easy to ask a kid to behave a certain way, when the problem is they copy adult behavior. Not only parents, but society has to give a good example so children can actually grow up to construct a better place to live in and also to be better human beings.

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  7. People often comment on how patient I am, and I say “you only think that because you’ve never seen me screaming at my kids!” I’ve worked very, very, hard at cleaning up my language and my general nasty comments. My previous “WANKER!” to foolish drivers or pedestrians has now been replaced by a very mild “that was a silly person”. I realised that I am perhaps a little too vocally critical when one of my 6-year olds wound his car window down and said to the motorcyclist stopped next to us at the lights “You’re a very silly person and you’re not wearing the right clothes for a motorbike. You could get hurt.” To be fair, the chap was in shorts and a t-shirt and my boy was totally correct, but…
    I did OK with my older kids, but one of the twins can wind us all up big time, because he just escalates. Shouting and buying into it just raised the whole emotional level. Now we try very hard to keep everything calm and dial his (and everyone else’s) emotions down not up. Not always easy. You might like Nigel Latta, a NZ psychologist and somewhat of a parenting guru. One of his tenets is that you should be the rock – let it wash over you and don’t make their problem your problem. I like this. And he’s a VERY funny man!
    Good post, as always!

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    • Well, at least he didn’t roll down his window and shout, “You’re dressed like an bloody moron, you WANKER!”
      I’ll check out what I can find on Latta. I can imagine myself chanting, “I am a rock, I am a rock, I AM A ROCK, I’M A ROCK SO KNOCK IT OFF YOU LITTLE SHITS!
      Thanks for your comments, FMNZ!

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  8. Having five little ones here has taught me that a parents best friends are patience and vodka, and lots of both. Lol! Seriously though, the part where you talk about seeking joy really makes sense to me. It’s so easy to get flustered and lose that sense of wonderment that should be ever-present with kids.

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    • Couldn’t agree more, Betty. It’s so easy to forget to look at the world through their eyes, and think that they can, or should, see the world through yours. We’re often weighed down by our own adult knowledge of the world’s ills, but the smallest thing – a ladybug, a picture in a book, twin shadows on a wall – can bring them such wonder and, well, joy. Yesterday, while I was thinking about icy roads and inevitable traffic and slush on my shoes, I saw two women, both probably in their mid-twenties, tottering down the middle of the street with their mouths open, trying to catch snowflakes on their tongues. They had the right idea. We should all catch snowflakes on our tongues from time to time. And climb trees, and watch ladybugs, and stop to admire the halo around a snowy streetlamp. We all need to see the world through the eyes of a child occasionally, and find joy in the smallest, the most mundane, the most unexpected places.

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