Teaching Kids By Example. For Better Or Worse.

woman sneaking cake

When you're always being watched, your kids are gathering lessons... intended or not.

A few weeks ago, I was on the phone far longer than I'd intended with a client whom I was allowing to monopolize my time. My 12-year-old son was waiting for homework help, which I'd promised "after a quick phone call." Suddenly, my son stuck a bright green Post-it note on my desk. In his neat printing, it said: "Get back on topic."

Sometimes, we teach our children too well.

How many times had I said to him, and to his older brother, through years of homework supervision and hundreds of distractions and interruptions (likely sounding like the honking teacher in a Charlie Brown animated special), "Get back on task"?

His intervention also put me in mind of something his brother, now 17, said to me once 11 years ago when I had taken a few years off work to concentrate (mostly) on the children. Three days per week, I had three hours free while they were both occupied—one in kindergarten, the other in preschool. One dull winter month, battling seasonal depression, I fell into the habit of spending those afternoons wandering malls, browsing antique shops and buying shoes. How We Made Our Careers More Kid-Friendly

One day, I picked up my kindergartner and he asked what I'd done that day. "Just some shopping," I replied.

"Oh, Mom, time to find something else to do."

Could it be he'd heard me say, dozens of times, when he'd reached the cranky stage after playing too long with one toy (or brother): "Time to find something else to do."

Yes. If we teach our children something right, they will fling it back at us, even when we don't want to hear it at the moment. When this happens, especially if it's on an otherwise rotten day, I'm secretly sort of proud. I say to myself, well, at least I've done one thing right. I've taught my sons this.

Likewise, the unintended lessons I've taught them—eating an entire bag of chips in front of the TV, arguing with my husband and then giving him the cold shoulder over something trivial, speaking too sharply to my own mother—also boomerang back in my direction. And when I see my flaws taking root in my sons, I'm filled with guilt. You mean I've taught them that?

In my efforts to lose weight over the years, I've tried to practice mindful eating—thinking before consuming. It sometimes works, but just as often doesn't (see chips-TV episode above). Recently, a friend who is a family therapist advised "mindful parenting"—thinking through not only how we respond to our children's actions before speaking or acting, but also being mindful that whatever we do, we are modeling behavior our kids are absorbing.

This makes a lot of sense, of course, but being a parent is 24/7, and the idea of being mindful all of those hours is daunting. When we consider that being mindful extends to the lessons we teach even when we're not planning on it, even when we are tired and stressed or think we're out of sight or earshot, well, the entire idea seems rigged against us.

When I drive Grandma to her doctor's appointment... wow, what a great unintentional lesson and I didn't even have to be mindful! But when my husband and I both pretend not to be home when the cranky relative calls? Not such a great unintended lesson. Maybe we should have been more mindful, huh?

Mindful parenting makes so much sense. Yet it's exhausting and intimidating and far too anxiety-producing to think about too deeply. I prefer to think about it as: Do what you'd want your own kid to do. You know, the Golden Rule and all that.

I get that as parents, we are always being observed... watched... that our behavior is the blueprint for our kids' future reasoning and actions, whether they are 2, 12 or, I'm told, 22. But I also know that my own parents—like that of most of their 1960s counterparts—were some of the least mindful parents on the planet. And yet the generation to which I belong seems a lot more resilient than the kids of today's hovering (and ultra-mindful) parents, according to recent studies. When It Comes To Parenting, Does One Size Fit All?

Which is not to say that my husband and I can act any old way we want in front of (or even away from) our kids. Just that I also think it's okay (maybe even healthy) for a kid to see that their own parents can screw up, too.