A few weeks ago I asked my 6-year old son, Joe, to please get the dinner dishes off the table. But it was one of our first really nice spring days, and he was already on his way out the back door to play in the yard.
So I stopped him and made myself clear. “I’m not going to let you go out and play until you’ve cleaned up the dishes,” I said, and boy, did that make him mad.
“Why do I always have to pick up all this garbagecrap?!” he demanded to know, stomping back to the table. Goodness. Garbagecrap? I’d never heard that word before. Where does he come up with such things? And when did my sweet little boy start cursing, for hell sakes?
Oh, all right. I might have some idea where he comes up with such
things. I’ve never thought of saying “garbagecrap” but I’ve definitely said
both “garbage” and “crap” and a variety of worse things when I’ve been
ticked off, and I suppose I must have done so within hearing range of my
But I’ll bet I’m not the first parent to realize, belatedly, that my children were listening when I thought they weren’t, that they were watching me when I they seemed to be focussed elsewhere, and that they’re
probably going to learn from my example whether I’m setting a good one
or a bad one.
It’s not that I don’t lecture my kids on what’s right and wrong; oh, I do.
In fact, I think of lecturing as one of my best skills, and I remember my
mother saying I was a born arguer. But I’ve started to realize that no matter how much “blah, blah, blah” I give to Joe and his 8-year old sister,
Belle, they’re watching me. I’m under constant surveillance, whether I
like it or not.
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I saw a news report on CNN a month or so ago that illustrated how this
can work, in ways we parents might not anticipate. The story was about
a long-term study that had just been completed about which parental pursuits correlate to high test-scores in school. One of the most surprising,
which surprised the researchers as well as the CNN reporter, was that reading to your kids does not cause them to do better in school; at least,
no correlation could be found between higher test scores in school and those kids whose parents read to them. You know where the correlation
was? It wasn’t reading to your kids, it was how many books you had in your own house. Kids who grew up in a household that had a lot of books scored
higher on tests.
The CNN story didn’t say, and I’m not saying, that there’s any downside
to reading to your children. But what the researchers did conclude was
that who you are might just matter more than who you try to turn your
kids into. In other words, they’re watching you.
This doesn’t have to bode ill for us parents because of course, my
swear words notwithstanding, we don’t always behave badly. The parents
who value reading in their own lives are passing that appreciation on to
their children just by being seen doing it, and that’s a good thing.
The implications of that program did make me want to examine my own
conduct, though, especially as I think about what I expect from Belle and
Joe. It made me ask myself how often I speak a little rudely to my hus-
band, because courtesy and kindness to others are topics I’m often lecturing my kids about. It made me ask myself whether or not I should get
more exercise, because I very much want Belle and Joe to be fit and
healthy. It made my ask myself how well I take care of my belongings,
because I’m always telling Belle and Joe to take better care of theirs.
And, speaking of belongings, although I’ve often thought my children
posses an excess of toys, when I looked in my closet and counted 34 pairs
of shoes I could see that some purging probably needed to take place in
my own room, not just in theirs.
In any case, Joe did finally clear the table that day, so I stuck to my
guns on that. But I didn’t get mad at him for saying “garbagecrap”
because I was actually laughing, and I had to stick my head pretty far
inside the open dishwasher to cover up the fact.
As I think back on it now, however, I wonder if that was the best course
of action. Maybe I should have gone ahead and let Joe know that I thought
“garbagecrap” was funny, and that I was capable of seeing the humor in
his bad behavior, and that sometimes laughing at yourself is the best way
to get over the rough patches of life. Maybe I should even have let him
know that, when it comes to bad language as well as to lots of other
things, I realize I’m often at fault myself, and am willing to admit it.
Perhaps that might have set a good example for him. Or at least, a better one than I provided by putting my head in the dishwasher.