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.”