This is not your typical parenting article reminding everyone to "talk so your kids will listen and listen so you kids will talk." It is not about spending time with them or about setting boundaries. There is no doubt that these are good pieces of advice and the foundations for all successful relationships, not only between parents and children. But we're going a little deeper here, beyond the more traditional parenting guidance that we've learned from advice columns, how-to manuals and "Supernanny."
The scary truth: Someone is watching you. (Cue airy, haunting music.) And they're close. . . really close! Every moment you are in your children's presence they are soaking in what it means to be a human from the longest-tenured, most influential person in their lives. They are learning how to act, how to think, how to feel. They are learning what to do when faced with challenges, uncertainty and opposition. They are learning about honesty and integrity. They are learning about health and nutrition and exercise. They are learning about passion and compassion. They are learning about self-worth. They are learning about complaining and upset. They are learning about anger and anxiety and neuroses.
So, what things are your children learning from you that make you cringe? Are they learning that there is never enough time?. . . that it's okay to be a bully?. . . that they don't have to treat people with respect?. . . that they can put all sorts of garbage in their bodies without regard to health?. . . that families members don't get along with each other? . . . that something is always wrong? If I didn't hit on one or two that ring true for you, take a moment to compose your own list. If you're like most people, the worst ones are on the tip of your tongue.
And the bottom line to all this? Deal with the traits and the relationships in your life that you wouldn't wish upon your children. It's not only about how you talk to your kids or what you explicitly teach them. Ultimately, your children don't do what you say, they do what you DO. If you want your children to be happy and well-adjusted, the best thing you can do for them is to be that model. If you are passing down your own neuroses, anxieties, or bad habits, STOP! Show your children where you've made mistakes and commit to making a change. (You can't model any better behavior than this!)
Here are a few things for you to think about from the perspective of how you want your children to experience and interact with the world:
Your Integrity - Will your children learn to honor and follow through on their commitments and promises? Will they meet deadlines and show up on time? Will they tell the truth to themselves and the people around them? Will they treat people with respect and kindness?
Your Health (mental and physical) - Will they eat well and exercise regularly? Will they get a decent amount of sleep? Will they learn that alcohol, caffeine, chocolate or [insert drug of choice here] is an integral part of life? What will they know about crafting and maintaining their body image and self-esteem? Will their fears and anxieties be eerily similar to your own?
Your Career - Will your children learn that they should love what they do professionally? Will they learn that work is a necessary but unfulfilling part of life? What will they learn about relationships with bosses and co-workers? Will they learn to aim high or settle? Will they learn to balance work and family?
Your Marriage or Partnership(s) - Will they learn to speak to their partners with love and tenderness? What will they learn about teamwork, communication and romance? How about bickering, sniping and keeping secrets? (Remember, your relationships are the models that they will likely be repeating in their own lives!)
Your Parents - What will they learn about adult parent-child relationships? Will they observe love and respect? What baggage do you have with your parents that you are consciously or unconsciously passing on to your children? What are they learning about their level of responsibility for taking care of you in your declining years?
So, let's recap: Your children are watching you and they are absorbing all of it. If you are not working on the aspects of your own life that are out of whack, then you are missing a major key to good parenting. You would think it a tragedy if your children were unable to realize their full potential, but what about you reaching yours? That might just be what's going to give them the best chance of turning out to be balanced, happy adults.