Let’s Teach Our Kids By Example


parent-with-kidsBy 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.


About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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15 thoughts on “Let’s Teach Our Kids By Example”

  1. Tia Will


    Thanks for this very lovely perspective on parenting.

    Patience. Persistence. Delay of gratification. Self-forgiveness. Realistic expectations.”

    To your list, I would add two more qualities. Collaboration and non violence. In a society that frequently seems to value ruthless competition and dominance over collaboration and peaceful interactions, I believe that our best hope for countering this is by teaching our children, first hand, at home, that cooperation in achieving goals and voluntary sharing of the rewards are superior choices that will lead to happier lives overall.


    1. Miwok

      I believe that our best hope for countering this is by teaching our children, first hand, at home, that cooperation in achieving goals and voluntary sharing of the rewards are superior choices that will lead to happier lives overall.

      Makes them compliant and fodder for the bullies.

      I see there are children who rebel or get swallowed up by their parent’s flaws and expectations. First they have to see it at home before they can practice it in public. Some, Many, never get that chance. Maybe only my experience, but I doubt it.

  2. wdf1

    This is good.  I think these thoughts should be put up there with all the curricular stuff as things to learn and develop in schools.  It’s not just of value in the home, but outside the home.

  3. sisterhood

    Hear, hear, Tia. I would also say, stop using the polite word for slapping as spanking. Every time someone spanks their child, say “I slapped my child.”

    1. South of Davis

      sisterhood wrote:

      > Every time someone spanks their child, say “I slapped my child.”

      Unless it was a “slap” on the face I’ll say “that guy hit his child” and if he hits the kid more than once “that guy beat his child”…

      It is sad how many kids that his other kids are hit by their parents at home…

  4. South of Davis

    David H. wrote:

    > Since all of us adults have our flaws, leading by example can be a challenge.

    Thanks for the post since I’m pretty sure all of us want to raise good kids…

    > 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.

    As a parent I often talk with other parents and try to understand why some parents “lead by example” and have the kids “follow” while others set a good example and have the kids “run the other way”.   We often get back to the “nature” vs. “nurture” debate and find that some kids are naturally  “patient, persistent, have realistic expectations, and an ear for music.” while others are impatient, give up easily have unrealistic expectations and have less natural musical talent than Steve Martin in the movie the Jerk.

    To give an example using music I have two close friends with very musical parents one Dad is in a bluegrass band and can play half a dozen different instruments (his day job was in investment banking) and the other Dad is in two different barbershop quartets and can play two different instruments (his day job was a surgeon).  One friend is also in a bluegrass band, was president of the bluegrass club in college, has a baby grand piano in his living room and the house is full of other instruments from fiddles to banjos, the other friend hates barbershop and still listens to the same AC/DC and Judas Priest metal that he listened to as an undergrad and still has the late 1970’s Fender Strat that his Dad bought him new and tried to get him to play with private lessons, (the only thing he can play is a few notes from Stairway to Heaven).

    Every now and then parents get lucky with kids who are “patient, persistent, have realistic expectations, and an ear for music” and it would be great to have some tips for those of us who have kids “going the other way” to get them to go in the direction we want (that we actually think is the best for them)…

  5. Frankly

    I very much enjoyed reading this.  The author echos much of the principles that my wife and I embraced raising our two boys.  When they were little and would see a toy they wanted on a TV commercial or in a store, our common response was “well then, save your money!”.

    “Patience. Persistence. Delay of gratification. Self-forgiveness. Realistic expectations.”

    Somewhere and sometime growing up I developed a mindset that I could probably do just about anything I wanted to do at a B-level.  And so off I went becoming the prince of many and the king of nothing… well actually I became the king of being the prince of many.

    I have semi-mastered many skills and disciplines because I decided I wanted to and put myself to work learning how.

    The reason I bring this up is to offer one more related piece of advice for parents.

    While I agree that we can pass on these traits by demonstrating them, there is also the challenge of giving kids the space to shine in their own accomplishments.   I am not talking about the false “great job Johnny!” encouragement that some parents lay on thick to boost a kid’s self confidence (it really does not work).   I am talking about backing off and slowing down to include the kids in the things we can do well as adults.

    I did not do enough of that during my kids’ earlier years.  They saw me doing all these things, and because I did not back off and slow down to include them, they developed a bit of insecurity that they were not going to be as accomplished as their dad for those things.

    The one major exception music.  I did take the time to teach both of them to play the guitar.  My youngest has exceeded my skills by an order of magnitude and is pursuing a degree in music production.  He plays the guitar, sax and keyboard and composes and records his own music.  The oldest could not keep up and grew frustrated, but now he is picking it up again at age 25.

    If I was able to go back for a redo, I would involve my two boys in all the athletics, construction projects, furniture-making, cooking, mechanical repair, electronics, IT and computer programming, art, leadership, project management, financial management and accounting… all those things I taught myself how to do mostly on my own.   But for me to have been effective at this, I would have had to have the mindset that I was a teacher and not a doer.   That was lost on me in many cases.  I think my kids still got good lessons watching me struggle to gain new skills and accomplish difficult tasks just from stubborn persistence.  I only wish that I had helped them gain a bigger start in skills development for these things as they launch to their own life.

    1. sisterhood

      Thank you for sharing your experience of raising two boys. I’d only question one statement re: empty praise and “it really does not work”. We have no idea what kind of day our kid had at school. I was bullied through much of 8th grade and never breathed a word of it to my folks, because my dad was having a rough year that year in his cop job and I really didn’t want to add to his burden. (Writing about his struggles in my memoir, finally helped put all that behind me.)

      Sometimes the only happy words a kid hears all day is an empty compliment. So maybe they are okay… I would have liked to hear a few more of those kind words in 1968.

      1. Frankly

        I meant the “great job Johnny!” when Johnny knows that his work/performance was mediocre at best.

        I think the kids are much more in tune with the world around them than we give them credit for.   When we give them empty or artificial praise, I think they usually know it.  When my boys would play sports… regardless if they had a good game or a bad game… their mother and I would just tell them how much we enjoyed watching them play, or that we enjoyed watching their team play.   However, if they really did something notable we will mention that too.

        Constructive criticism can be hard to deliver to some kids… the more sensitive ones can melt into a moment of depressed insecurity.   Often it is not even needed because the kids know it already.  But I think empty or artificial praise is generally less useful in helping the kids move forward.

  6. Don Shor

    This is a wonderful essay, and I certainly hope David Hafter will become a regular contributor.

    ** 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. **

    It would be difficult for me to think of any parents who pursued their interests, professionally and personally, more than my father and mother did. This prompted me to re-read the eulogy I wrote for my mother last year (happy to share it with anyone who’s interested), and it reminded me of what an accomplished person she was at finding self-fulfillment and exemplifying what David is expressing here. So thank you for this.

    My mother used to say (repeatedly) ‘we don’t care what profession you choose, so long as you’re outstanding in your field’. So after we bought a farm, a running joke in the family was to send mom a picture of me out standing in my field.

  7. Anon

    Wonderful article, and I agree wholeheartedly with its sentiments.  I would add two things – don’t judge other parenting styles, and each child can be quite different from another and thus need to be handled differently.  When I was raising my first of three children, my oldest daughter was an absolute pistol when she was little (and to some extent still is!), from the day she was born.  She was the only baby in the nursery who was constantly awake and aware.  I swear to God she smiled at me when they brought her in to nurse!  (No, it wasn’t gas!  LOL).  She walked at 9 months old, and never stopped.  She would not hold my hand, would not stay in her stroller, nothing I could do was effective in controlling her tendency to wander.  And a tendency for a 2 year old to wander is extremely dangerous when next to a street.  So I made the decision to buy a harness for her – best thing I ever did.

    I was in a shopping mall one day, with her at 2 years old in tow, happily toddling along but being controlled by me with a leash hooked to a harness that went around her torso.  A lady and her friend were passing me, pushing an old-fashioned baby buggy w the hood down, you know the kind, huge with big wheels that sit up very high off the ground.  The woman’s perfect little girl was sitting perfectly in the carriage, with her perfect little frilly dress on, little patent leather shoes, lacy socks, perfect coifed hair with a perfect bow.  The woman looked my daughter, in tousled hair, jeans and a t-shirt toddling happily along, up and down, then turned to her friend beside her.  In a loud obnoxious voice to ensure I would hear, she said to her friend, “Harnesses are for dogs and horses, not for children!”

    I remember thinking at the time, may God give you another child that won’t sit still, so that you may better understand my method of keeping my child safe while letting her explore her world.  Some time after that, a column about child harnesses appeared in Dear Abby or Ann Landers, can’t remember which.  It told several stories of parents who lost their children who had wandered, and wished they had used a harness.

    This is all by way of saying, every child is different, and may have to be handled differently.  What works for some may not work for others.  My next two children were not wanderers, had no problem holding my hand and staying in the stroller.  Parents have to accommodate the needs of children that march to the tune of a different drummer!

    1. sisterhood

      My daughter was a bolter too. Perhaps some of you remember an extremely hysterical woman at the Wednesday night farmers’ market about 20 years ago. My daughter was fine, she had returned to our blanket when she realized she was lost. I didn’t handle it as well. I was just about to call the cops when I realized I should go check our blanket. 🙂 And even then, I frowned on folks who leashed their kid, until we had to go to the airport without her dad. Two kids, one purse and 3 boarding passes made me realize I had made a big mistake.

      Funny. Now my daughter loves to travel but my son is more a homebody. Guess we have to appreciate their unique personalities at a very young age.

  8. Tia Will


    Your account made me smile. My daughter was also a little “pistol” and loved the sense of freedom and independence provided by  her “rainbow leash” which she would run and bring to me whenever we were going out. My son, also a “pistol” turned his talents not so much to wandering, but to his Houdini act. His first action was to escape whatever protective device I had for him whether his “leash”, his high chair, his car seat. If I could restrain him, he could escape !

    Your point is well taken about the importance of parents identifying, accepting and treasuring the different styles, interests, and talents of their children.

    1. Anon

      LOL  Thank you Tia and Sisterhood, for your accounts of children that just don’t want to cooperate with their parent, and celebrating the differences in kids and the need to handle these wonderfully special children to suit their unique personalities.  Made my day!

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