Parents are people, too: musings on the lessons that we teach

Guest post by Ashby
Stomp on the flowers!]

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.

Comments on Parents are people, too: musings on the lessons that we teach

  1. this is a great article… there are some parents out there sadly, who think they don’t have any power over the influence their kids have. they think that what ever they do and however they do it, it won’t impact their kids. it is sad to watch and hear. i think about this every day too… it is tough… how do you know the right way to do anything? i read a lot, but sometimes reading about different parenting issues doesn’t help or it doesn’t apply… and you end up winging it and wondering, am i doing this right? i have a hard time with consequences. i don’t always carry them out or i can never find the right ones for the right actions. it just seems like i say no, no, no, no… and either they quit or they get a time out. does that mean i am a push over? should i be more force full? will my kids turn out bad? and what about those situations where they are doing something they don’t usually do or only do when they are super tired? i get so lost! but i do know one thing, i love them. i love being a parent. i want what is best for them. and i am trying my best… hopefully that counts for something.

    • Yes, because being the type of parent who cares enough to try to do what’s best for their kid is what counts. This doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes or will always actually do what’s best. It doesn’t mean you’ll always be selfless or perfect or that your kids will be perfect. If you’re the type of parent who thinks about the impact of your actions even if sometimes you fail to follow through in the heat of the moment – that’s the type of parent your kid needs. This seems obvious but there are a number of parents who just don’t think about it – about what a good parent is (whatever that may mean, and it can mean different things). And I’ve seen the impact of this in schools on children as the writer has. so, even if you make mistakes the fact that you’re sometimes cognisant of them and of your actions and that they can have an effect is awesome

      • So true! We parents are human, we make mistakes and our children will make mistakes too. One of the greatest lessons we can teach them is how to take responsibility for our “mistakes” learn from them and make things better by doing this ourselves. Not only will we be repairing our relationship with them by admitting when we have done something wrong or could have responded differently, but also we are modelling for them essential skills for life and relationships.

  2. This reminded me of the “children learn what they live” poem:

    I think you’re a very good parent for thinking about these things and being mindful of how you act.

    I guess I would just say: Don’t be too hard on yourself. After all, you mentioned you have some (as you put it) “less adorable” traits, as do we ALL, but you (and we) turned out ok. As the saying goes, “well what else are they going to talk about in therapy??” — That is to say, “*everyone* has less-than-desirable traits and quirks which they need to work on.”

    Everyone has “less than adorable” traits, and that’s ok, we all work on them together.

  3. I think it’s important to impress this idea on your kids too. It was late high school (maybe early college) when I finally got it that my parents were real people with faults and flaws like mine. The realization smacked me upside the head and wasn’t very pleasant, for a while *all* I could see were their flaws, and I’m still struggling to recover a happy healthy relationship with them. (It doesn’t help that I’ve gone 180 degrees around my belief spectrum: religion, politics, and social issues)

    My parents wanted to shelter me from their issues growing up, which I appreciate, but I think I would have understood an explanation of what was going on too.

    • i understand where youre coming from. most kids are raised to do what their parents tell them and not to question them, making parents almost god-like figures to children. and most people are taught that God has no flaws, so what is a child to think of their parents?

  4. great post. as a former teacher, i can totally relate to the observations you’ve made about your students. in many ways, i think my teaching experience made me a better parent. one of the things i learned with my students is that they were more willing to forgive my mistakes if i fessed up, and worked on a solution with them, so i’ve carried that over to how i deal with conflicts with my toddler. i apologize, tell her what i did and ask her what we can do to fix it. most of the time, it works and i like that she is learning that mommies make mistakes too!

  5. Interesting post. I’m a soon to be mama but have already witnessed this with my young neices and nephews. It is definitely a case of monkey see monkey do with actions so they must be taking everything on board in their heads too.

  6. Argh! I find this one so hard sometimes.

    (a bit of background – my family consists of me, Rik (fiancé) and Rezmi. Rezmi adopted Rik as Dad years ago when Rik and his church went out to the orphanage in Romania where Rezmi lived. Roll on 12 years and a grown-up Rezmi lives with us in the UK and is studying English here. Never let it be said that the EU don’t occasionally make things simpler in terms of paperwork and rules and stuff. Rezmi’s bio parents were both drug addicts/alcoholics and Rezmi was basically a runaway/street kid before getting to the orphanage)

    Anyway, I’ve managed to pick up the *worst* bits of both my mum and my dad when it comes to losing my temper. Unfortunately, we’ve discovered the hard way that, when I do so, it sounds the same to Rezmi as when his bio mother lost her temper, which apparently happened all too frequently (although I stop at shouting, I’d never hit anyone and would certainly never break both a 6 y/o’s arms in a drunken/drug-induced rage). We’re getting there slowly though. I’ve actually realised how scary I must sound at times. Rik’s learning when to call me out about stuff. Rezmi’s also getting to see “grown-ups” working through the bad stuff in a fairly rational fashion rather than getting out of their heads on drugs and then having a physical fight.

    On the point of “teachers are people too”. I’ve been a Brownie Guide leader for over 10 years now. A few years ago, one of the girls in our group had serious behavioural issues and was in foster care. The whole world seemed to be full of things that she wasn’t allowed to do and she was pretty rebellious to put it mildly! One of the main battles was trying to get her to stop swearing. None of us really had any success during our meetings until one day, she caught me nearly swearing during the meeting (I can’t remember what provoked me to swear but it wasn’t in front of the girls and I didn’t even realise she was within earshot!) The realisation that I was only asking her to do what I did myself and that sometimes I slipped up as well helped quite a bit with any future requests to behave a bit more during meetings. I think that going, in per perception, from a goody-two-shoes who never did bad stuff to jst another flawed human being, trying her best was quite significant.

    (This seems to paint me in a really bad light, I swear I’m not really foul-mouthed with anger-management issues on a day-to-day basis! :o) )

  7. A cute musical example of this is “Watching You” by Rodney Atkins, which talks about how our children look up to us and thus pick up on our bad AND good habits. I just listened to it again, and it reminded me of this article. I know country music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m sure there are other genres with songs (and poems, like the one mentioned above!) that express the same sentiment…

  8. Nice article. My son just hit the three month mark and I finally feel like I have a grip on this whole mothering thing (for the moment at least). The points you made in this article are a good reminder to myself that (1) he will mirror my emotions and behaviors, and (2) I need to be extremely proactive and maintaining my own sense of self in addition to my parenting responsibilities and his identity.

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