Parents must walk the talk and thus help their children learn from them. Socrates said, “The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.”
As parents, our children see us at our best and our worst; everything we do makes an impression. How you do anything is how you do everything.
Case Study 1:
Once my daughter overheard me speaking rudely to a telemarketer who had called during dinner. She reacted promptly, “It was rude of you to not listen to what he had to say. Would you have acted that way if he was sitting in front of you?” “Well, no…not at all,” I replied sheepishly.
The fact is the way we speak to a telemarketer or follow through on a promise to help with a science project is all duly noted by our children. We may forget our manners, or find we don’t have time after all to help as promised with a science project. That’s okay; we’re human, and will inevitably fall short of who we most want to be now and again. But when we behave in a way that doesn’t line up with what we preach to our children, we need to take responsibility.
I advise parents to use every opportunity – even their faux pas. Instead of making the situation worse by defending yourself, be honest with them and show them the real ‘you’.
In the case of the telemarketer, you could say, “Why should I care to talk politely to someone who calls me so late in the night to disturb my dinner?” And take up the argument with your child. But this will only make the child feel emotionally unsafe with you for two reasons: First, you are illogical and unreasonable in not owning up your mistakes. Second, you are covering up and trying to protect yourself when you certainly are in the wrong.
Instead you should be upfront and humble yourself and say “I could give you excuses about why I spoke to that fellow rudely, but you’re right. I don’t feel good about how I was with him.” This second reply will be far more edifying than the first one because you had the courage to admit that you made a mistake and are willing to take full responsibility for it. Also, you validated your child who was thinking correctly and soundly.
This way the child learns that it is ok to make mistakes. You send the message that humans do make mistakes. It is acceptable to make mistakes but it is important not to repeat them. The child will thus feel safe to own up their mistakes and take responsibility for erring. And they will not feel ashamed and hide it because they know that you too make mistakes and are honest and upfront about it. However to ensure that they learn the lesson and do not repeat it, you must also say, “I hope not to behave so badly the next time.”
And when the telemarketer calls again, you must do as you promised and speak politely instead of rudely to help your child acknowledge that you have made amends to your behaviour and so they too must make amends when they err and change past behaviours which are problematic.
When we know that we are loved even after we have lost our way, it is far easier for us to acknowledge our wrongdoing and look for ways to make amends, restoring the trust of those we care about.
Case Study 2:
As in the case of fifteen-year-old Karthik who came to see me after a blowout argument with his mother, during which he had called her some pretty ugly names. I asked him to tell me the story of what had led to him getting grounded for a month. His story went like this: “She made me really mad so I said #$%*. Then she said I was grounded for a week! I got madder and told her I thought she was @ˆ&*!. And then she said I was grounded for another week and so I said *#$%.”
When I asked Karthik how he’d felt about it afterward, he told me that he felt pretty bad, but he was also upset that he’d been grounded. I asked if I could offer him my take on what he had just shared with me. “I get the impression that you felt kind of forced to say hurtful things because your mom was upsetting you. Is that how you see it?” He agreed. But he smiled a little; he knew me well enough to know that I was probably going to encourage him to step outside his version of events to see things from a wider perspective.
I said, “Karthik, can you tell me the same story, but this time, as you describe what you did or said, please first use the words I decided to or I chose to.” He squirmed a little, but he was a good sport. “My mom made me really mad when she was coming down on me about something so I decided to say #$%* to her. She got really mad and said I was grounded for a week. So I got even madder and chose to tell her I thought she was @ˆ&*!. Then she got super mad at me and said I was grounded for two weeks, so I decided to say *#$%.” When he finished, I asked him how it felt to tell the second version of his story. Poor guy — it was so much easier to blame his mom than to claim ownership for his contribution to the situation.
To his credit, though, he admitted that he had made some pretty bad choices, which had led to him getting in trouble. I talked about how we all make mistakes, but that if own up to them and commit to making amends, we can set things right again. It is all well and good to talk to our children about the importance of facing the consequences of bad decisions in the hopes that they will be thoughtful and prudent with the choices they make.
I once read about a tribe in Africa whose members do something quite extraordinary when somebody does something wrong. They believe that every person comes into the world wanting love and peace but that sometimes people make mistakes. For two days the whole tribe surrounds the wrongdoer, telling him everything good he has done in his life. They view the man’s transgression as a cry for help and come together to hold him up and remind him of who he is, until he remembers the core goodness from which he temporarily became disconnected.
Consider what might happen if we did that with kids who are troubled or hurting? Imagine compassionately reminding them of their goodness instead of berating them when they make a mistake? When we know that we are loved even after we have lost our way, it is far easier for us to acknowledge our wrongdoing and look for ways to make amends, restoring the trust of those we care about.
Adhering to the notion that how we do anything is how we do everything can be a real burden. We have to be willing to forgive ourselves — often. But by demonstrating consistency in our character, we establish ourselves as a reliable North Star, worthy of being a reference point for our children as they navigate their lives with honor and integrity.
Teaching our children to be accountable for how they show up in the world — on their good days and their not-so-good ones— gives them an enormous advantage in life. We are all drawn to people we can trust — those who follow through on their commitments and keep their word — and we trust those who take responsibility for their actions.