We all have big plans for what we want to teach our kids, the values we want to instill, the pop culture we want to pass down. We all have big plans for molding out children into the kind of people we want them to be.
And then we actually have the kids, and life intrudes.
A few years ago, an old friend was visiting with his family. We were in the backyard, catching up over a couple of beers, when one of his sons, who’s the same age as Detective Munch said something about a girl in his class, or a teacher, or his mom. In an attempt to make his dad laugh, I reflexively made a “women, am I right?” joke.
My friend didn’t laugh.
Instead, he cut me off, making it clear that he didn’t want his kid to hear that kind of thing. I was embarrassed, not only for making a dumb joke, but because I knew he was right. I was being a bad role model and a bad parent. My highly nuanced crack about the inherent difficulty of interacting with the female gender (i.e., “Women be CRAZY!”) was inappropriate around a young, impressionable kid. His dad was right to rebuke me.
A joke like that might be harmless among adults who know each other – my friend knows I don’t actually believe it, that I was being hacky and ironic, but it’s not so harmless around kids. They absorb everything, they look to adults for cues, and they don’t know from irony. Displaying a subtly misogynistic attitude could potential infect my friend’s kid with an unhealthy perspective. That’s not the kind of lesson I want to impart to my friend’s kids, and certainly not to mine.
I want to raise my sons to be respectful of women, of everyone, and to accept them as equals on every level. I spend a fair amount of time writing about my desire to raise my sons with the right values, but the anecdote above should make it pretty clear that I don’t always practice what I preach.
It’s a lot easier to write about being a good dad than it is to actually be one.
I have a lot of shortcomings as a parent and as a person, and I’m not shy about admitting them. I also don’t pretend that it’s easy to follow through on all the grand plans you have for raising your kids – from playing them classical music when they’re in the womb to denying the screen time until they’re ten, etc – once you actually have them. All that stuff is great in theory and much more difficult in practice.
We don’t raise children in a vacuum. We don’t parent them in a bubble, isolated from the real world, protected from daily stresses, separated from our non-parent lives. No, we add the children to our lives, and we continue to live. Our priorities change, and our perspective is altered, and, if we’re diligent, our behavior changes as we adjust to our roles as Examples and Role Models.
But none of us stop being ourselves when we become moms and dads. It can sometimes feel like it, but the people we were pre-kids are never really gone. It can take a real effort to adjust your behavior and your lifestyle to the fact that there are kids around. But if you want to raise them right, you have to do more than pay lip service to the values you want to pass down. You have to live them yourself, or else the messages get muddled. Actions speak louder than words!
Instilling the right values, imparting the proper wisdom, and raising your kids with lofty ideals sounds great, but it’s a lot harder to pull off when you’re actually living your life.
It’s hard to preach kindness to your kids when someone cuts you off in traffic and your instinct is to curse them out. It’s hard to promote civility when your primary mode of communication is sarcasm and gentle mockery. It’s hard to insist on kindness when reading the news makes you furious with half the country. It’s hard to teach equality when you crack jokes that say something different. But you’ve got to try!
Like it or not, you’re a role model now. Your kids both want to be like you and can’t help becoming like you. And while they might listen to the things you say, they also watch the things you do, so you’d better practice what you preach.
Because seeing is believing.