I know a little boy who yells as his only form of communication. For a long time, I wondered if he was doing it to get attention or if he had a hearing problem. Then I met his mom and discovered really quickly why he yells all the time.
It is to get people’s attention, but it’s also because that’s the way he has learned to get attention. He learned it from his mama. I’ve never heard one person speak so loudly in such a small room. She’s almost deafening.
And you know what? I’m almost certain she learned that from her parents, too.
So often, we try to hold kids accountable for behaviors that they’ve learned from their most trusted teachers. Their parents. And sometimes, those parents are ourselves.
I, for example, unknowingly taught my oldest daughter to react with sharpened senses whenever she hears thunder outside. She was raised almost completely with me her first couple years of life because my husband worked nights, and I was terrified of storms.
We’d lived near an F-5 tornado when she was only 2 weeks old, which made my anxiety go through the roof. Add to that being the only adult home all night long, and you’ve got a recipe for a scaredy cat.
What I didn’t notice at the time was that my daughter was watching how I reacted. She saw my ears perk up, saw me look out the window, and saw me pull out my weather app. Then she heard me tell whoever was in the room whether or not the storm would be severe.
I didn’t mean for her to pick up on that, but she did. Our children learn the most subtle habits from us sometimes.
Now, whenever the first roll of thunders echoes by outside, she looks out the window and asks me if we’ll have to go into our storm shelter.
Fortunately, by the time I had my second child, I had learned that my first was picking up on my subtleties. By the time the second kid came along, I had trained myself to not respond when I heard thunder. Or I would respond with a smile and the words, “Yay! Rain for our plants!”
And my second daughter hardly even notices when it’s storming. If she does, it’s only to look up from her toys and say, “You love rain. Don’t you, Mommy?”
They learn our behaviors, even when we don’t mean for them to.
In fact, I think they learn more from our actions than they do from our words. We can tell them all day long to eat their vegetables, but if we won’t put them on our own plates, they’re going to learn that vegetables are gross.
We can tell them storms aren’t scary, but if we’re checking our weather apps and staring out the window with wide eyes every time it rains, they’ll learn that storms are scary.
We can talk and talk and talk about being gentle and kind as human beings, but if our kids see us casually ignoring the homeless without even speaking of them, or talking about things that make us sad without ever taking action, or acting differently in public than we do in private, then our kids will learn that gentleness and kindness are a mirage.
If we use a loud voice, they will, too. If we manipulate them to get them to do what we want, they will do that to others (or to each other).
If we use foul language, they will, too. Maybe not in front of us, but believe me, they will.
The people we are in private almost certainly will become the person your child will be at school. It’s who they will be until they learn to hide their true selves and put on a face for people in public. And then they’ll be repeating this whole process with their kids.
Teach your children who you want them to be by showing them what that looks like.
Be who you wish for them to be.
Be who you talk to them about being.
Be a person who practices what you preach.