By David N. Hafter
Kids seem to notice everything. They may not always know how to interpret what they see and hear, but little gets by them. As they get older, they are quick to point out even a hint of hypocrisy.
Since all of us adults have our flaws, leading by example can be a challenge. When I am presenting to groups or classrooms of kids, I always encourage them to cut us some slack. If they are looking for someone to trust, they can’t have perfection as the standard we have to meet. That said, however, as a kid, hearing “Do what I say, not what I do” always rang hollow to me and left me morally confused.
We want the next generation to be happy and to do well but that is much easier said than done. We rightly focus them on good goals like getting an education, a good job and making a family — and neglect the process of how those things are accomplished. These are not simple tasks, and the necessary skill sets for achieving them must be taught.
Patience. Persistence. Delay of gratification. Self-forgiveness. Realistic expectations.
These are the “how” skills you must have to get good at anything. Unfortunately, a working knowledge of them does not come with the baby. It’s like seeing ‘batteries not included’ on the toy box: You’d better make sure you have some or that toy will never work.
It is the same with young people; they have to develop these skills. You cannot expect success without providing the means for achieving it. And just talking about these skill sets is not enough. To have credibility, you have to demonstrate them.
Think for a moment about the best teacher you ever had — someone who took the time to help you learn something important or achieve a difficult goal. Chances are, this person helped you with the process of learning and successfully guided you through your self-doubt, self-criticism, frustration and impatience.
You learned to slow down and think and things through before you act. You learned to replace self-criticism with positive self-talk, trusting that time invested and efforts made would indeed eventually pay off if you just hang in there and do the hard work.
These realizations don’t come naturally for most people and must be experienced to be believed, especially when advertisers daily promote instant gratification to them as a reasonable expectation. We adults know it isn’t true but how do we prove it?
Most often, the process of learning is more important than what is being taught. There are life-and-death exceptions, of course, but when faced with the question, “When am I ever going to need to know the quadratic equation?” the truthful answer is probably, “Never.” However, there is great value in mastering the process of learning something difficult and maybe even boring (my apologies to math teachers everywhere). Not every job-related task a youth will face in the future is fascinating.
I give parent education presentations on several mental health and family dynamics-related issues. In addition to offering parents and caregivers strategies for dealing differently and hopefully more effectively with their children, I always encourage these adults to do two interconnected things. One is a “start” and the other is a “stop”:
* Start demonstrating your commitment to a personal creative process; and
* Stop “sacrificing everything” for your children.
These may seem impractical or counter-intuitive — or both — so let’s take them one at a time.
Take on a creative process? Aren’t we parents busy enough?
Well, yes and no. I’m not trying to guilt-trip busy parents, only challenging them to do something that both nurtures them personally and demonstrates involvement in the skill sets their kids need to be successful. Remember how kids notice everything? When a parent makes time for a hobby of some sort, he or she personally demonstrates all of the skill sets kids need to be successful: patience, persistence, self-forgiveness, delay of gratification, realistic expectations.
You can garden, draw, paint, sculpt, write poetry, dig out the old guitar or clarinet or rebuild an engine: Really, any hobby will do if it forces you to confront your current limitations and work through them toward success.
My son, Noah, as a sixth-grader, once teased me, saying, “I’m gonna kill myself if I hear you practice ‘Box of Rain’ one more time on that guitar!” But he heard my struggles and watched me get better. Only a few years later he shared a stage with me, becoming an accomplished player and singer in his own right. I have never been prouder, not only of him, but of myself.
Trust me, I make my fair share of parenting mistakes but teaching him by example how to hang in there through a difficult process is not one of them.
Stop sacrificing for my kids?
No, of course not; good parenting involves plenty of sacrifices. No one should take on the job of parenting until he or she is fully prepared to sacrifice to their children a good deal of time, energy, emotions and, of course, money.
But not all of it, not “everything.”
The data are in: Generations of well-intentioned parents over-sacrificing for their kids simply bred unappreciative (or guilty) kids and resentful parents. If you catch yourself thinking or saying, “You’re giving me attitude after all I do for you?” then you probably have not been taking good enough care of yourself.
It’s OK to put your dibs on a leftover slice of the pie. Treating yourself well reminds your kids that you are a separate person from the role you play in their lives. You have your own needs and desires. Setting aside some time and resources for activities like hobbies demonstrates to them the importance of both self-challenge and self-care. That’s teaching by example.
David N Hafter, MFT is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist living in Davis.