The most unexpected experiences - and scenes - reveal life more fully so we may move through it more freely.
‘Do as I Say, Not as I Do’ Doesn’t Work
I must confess, despite its crudeness, I totally love the movie Knocked Up. I know, it’s vulgar to a point that I’d eagerly crochet my eyelids closed before ever watching it with my parents. But the underlying theme of something inexplicably beautiful being brought out of mistakes and pain just fills me with hope.
The character who resonated most with me is the dad. Not the adorable, didn’t-read-the-baby-books, baby daddy Ben, played by Seth Rogan. I’m referring to his dad. The character is never given a name so for purposes of this post, we’ll refer to him as Harold since he’s played by Harold Ramis, AKA Egon from the original Ghost Busters. (How do I know that? I don’t. Google does.)
When Ben first discloses to his father that he’s gotten Allison pregnant, Harold is elated. “This is a blessing,” he says, going on to encourage Ben in this role of fatherhood and sort of boyfriend-hood that he’s been unexpectedly plopped into.
Then, things between Ben and Allison get rocky, and Ben is distraught. When he calls his dad to lament the circumstances, saying he never should have listened to him, his dad basically responds by, surprisingly, agreeing.
“I’ve been divorced three times,” he reminds him. “Why would you listen to me?”
In a general sense, it’s a pretty dismal line and I’m not saying that we parents, in our imperfect states, ought to throw in the towel as far as giving advice to our kids.
But I actually found Harold’s honesty refreshing because it pinpoints an important parenting principle: The whole ‘do as I say but not as I do’ approach is complete bologna. Attempting to raise children by telling them to heed our instructions but not follow our example is a surefire route to disaster.
I learned this the hard way a couple years ago.
See, when our oldest was about two, I lost my temper on the reg. That’s not to say I’ve completely graduated from the spazz zone and now never lose my cool. Trust me, I do, as my husband can confirm. But I’ve become more familiar with the negative repercussions of my outbursts, so I’ve managed to at least somewhat decrease their frequency.
But when our daughter was first entering those difficult toddler years when a child could create a successful career out of perturbing parents, my method of discipline was, well, loud.
My logic (or lack thereof), was that if I made my voice intimidating enough and imprinted the event in her memory as a negative one, she’d associate that with her misbehavior and make a better choice next time.
So one night after dinner, we made the rookie parenting mistake of doing an errand (furniture shopping, specifically) even though it was fast-approaching the little one’s bedtime. Needless to say, it was disastrous.
My husband attempted to converse with a salesman while I, pregnant and simply maxed out for the day, chased our cantankerous child around the store. In aggravation, I explained over and over that attempting to switch on every last end table lamp throughout the store would be futile because they’re not actually plugged in.
Before long, I’d reached the end of my already short rope. I motioned to my husband that it was go-time, and proceeded to carry our over-exhausted toddler kicking and screaming to the car.
The ride home could not have been more unpleasant if it had begun raining hot lava and an angry swarm of locusts through the sunroof. (This is highly unlikely because we don’t have a sunroof.) I shutter to think of how I berated our little girl, howling from the drivers’ seat while she sat sobbing behind me. My husband, ever steadfast and tolerant of my erratic temper, sat calmly beside me, patiently requesting that I tone it down a notch.
And then, he surprised me with a tidbit of wisdom I can only attribute to the well of brilliance within him that he doesn’t dip into nearly often enough. “You can yell and intimidate her all you want,” he said, “But one day she’s not going to be scared of you anymore. This just isn’t effective discipline.” Aaaaand
It occurred to me then that my behavior – the thunderous loss of my temper that manifested far too frequently – was something I would absolutely not tolerate in my child. I might pathetically attempt to justify my own outbursts as being intended to discipline and instruct but if my daughter followed my example and expressed herself in the same manic, slanderous manner, I would absolutely not condone it. My method of punishment was hypocritical.
If I continued in this, one of two things would happen: Either my daughter would lose all respect for me because I acted one way and expected something totally different from her; Or she would become exactly like me, essentially living in complete hypocrisy, never practicing what she preached. Lose/lose.
This is where proper parenting summons us to do something most of us manage to skimp on until we have little people observing our every move: work on ourselves. As Ron Taffel, Ph.D. wrote in Parents magazine, “You present a powerful model when you let your child see you trying to handle your own harsh emotions. Plus, he sees in a concrete way that the things you tell him to do are consistent with how you behave.”
But it’s not just in getting ahold of our emotions. It’s every single area in which we expect our children to make admirable decisions. If my diet consists of crappy choices, I can’t expect my kids to have much concern for their own physical health. If I treat others unkindly (including while driving), how can I expect my kids to extend kindness to others? If I’m not prioritizing my marriage, how will they know what a healthy relationship looks like?
As the old adage goes, our actions speak significantly louder than our words.
And that’s why I love Harold’s character. He recognizes and lays out his imperfections, as opposed to justifying or ignoring them. In a raw, humble manner, he admits that he’s not one to dish out fruitful relationship advice when his own track record includes three failed marriages.
Look: I’m not saying that as parents, we need to set our sights on perfection in order to be picturesque icons for our kids. Neither am I insisting that we ought to avoid advising our children in areas we haven’t mastered. My point is simply this: What we expect for our little ones, we must be willing to model for them. And when we fail, we ought to courageously confess our weaknesses, as opposed to turning a blind eye to them or making excuses.
After all, excuses are like armpits: everyone has them and they all stink.