It’s easy to feel powerless as a parent today — our kids have so many influences other than us, and we have little control over these influences. There are celebrities, their peers, their teachers, and the media. I agonize sometimes over how little impact I feel that I have on how my son turns out. But when I catch myself doing this, I realize I know that I’m wrong.
As a teacher working with “at risk” high school students, I see on a daily basis how many lessons children learn from their parents about life and behavior and emotions and relationships. They see the world through a filter created by their early experiences, and the hardest part of my job is always trying to replace that filter with a healthier one.
When a child learns that adults aren’t trustworthy, he becomes a teenager who can’t see anyone as a potential role model. Kids whose parents respond inconsistently to their behavior — one day with praise, one day with violence, one day not at all — learn that the world is an arbitrary place, that their actions don’t matter, and their actions don’t have predictable consequences. A child who sees her parents compromising becomes a young adult who approaches disagreements as potential solutions instead of confrontations. A kid who hears his parents apologize when they make a mistake learns that being wrong isn’t fatal.
As the mother of a toddler, I see how early these lessons are taught. My son is one, and I rejoice — and cringe — every day to see him parroting our behavior. Some examples are obvious, simple imitations: he makes the same scrunched face as my husband when he’s thinking hard about something, and when he pats the cat he croons, “shhhh beebee,” like I do when I rock him to sleep.
Other times, though, I catch glimpses of bigger lessons that he’s already learned about life. In our house, physical affection is normal — we’re masters of the drive-by-kiss and the doing-the-dishes-hug. And now, so is Miles — he often pauses in his play to rush over, give one of us a big hug, and then scoot back to his toys. Less adorably, he also seems to have picked up on my low frustration tolerance, and a stomping foot and angry growl are becoming more and more commonplace. Oops.
Kids don’t always learn the lesson we intend to teach, and we don’t always know which lesson they’ll pick up — will letting him cry it out to sleep lead to a baby learning to “self soothe,” or to feeling abandoned and neglected? Will divorce teach them to recognize when they need to make a change to be healthy and happy, or to give up on relationships when it gets hard? All of our decisions are basically a balancing act between best case and worst case scenarios. And that struggle for balance, that constant act of faith, is parenting.
This is something I struggle with, and worry about, daily. With my job, I sometimes feel like I live in constant fear of “screwing my kid up;” of inadvertently teaching lessons that will create the kind of confusion and disillusionment I see in so many of my students. I don’t have any solutions, really — I tell the kids all the time when they complain about an unfair grade or punishment, “Teachers are people too” — and the same could be said of parents.
Parents are people, too, and we don’t miraculously lose all our insecurities and issues the day our children are born. The best I can do is to try to live mindfully, to lead a life that is happy and full of love, and to hope that those are the things that will stick with my kid… along with the foot stomping.