Now that Madison, my first-born, is fifteen, some of the rituals we shared when she was a toddler are beginning to fade in my old age. Last weekend, though, she reminded me of one. Madison was babysitting our neighbor’s three-year old, Chloe; and Chloe asked Madison to read her story after story. “After the tenth and final book,” Madison told me, “instead of saying, ‘The End’, I said, ‘The Chooka-Makah’. Chloe asked me what I had said. I really had no idea. Where did that come from?”
Madison’s question brought a long-forgotten memory back to me. During her early years, Madison would ask me to read book after book, and I would say, “The End” for each one. But when it was the final book of the night, I would make her smile by saying “The Chooka-Makah.”
My teen had become me, at least as far as picture book-reading goes! It was a moment that made me smile. She unknowingly was carrying on a family tradition; I then knew that when she has a child of her own, she will try to make her smile, as I had with her.
As they grow, and even into adulthood, children repeat the behaviors they learn at home. When I was Madison’s age, my mom asked me to wash the dishes and then inspected my work. I didn’t pass because there were crumbs on the counter on the other side of the kitchen. Mom then told me that wiping down the counter was part of washing the dishes. I recall vowing never to assume that my child would automatically understand that wiping all the counters was a part of washing the dishes. Yet, when I became a parent, one day I came home to find cleaned dishes by the sink and crumbs on the counter. I have no idea how the words came out of my mouth, but there I was screaming, “Who washed the dishes but left the crumbs on the counter?! Wiping the counter is part of washing the dishes!”
Our children follow our example, one way or another. This means that we need to be the person we want our children to become. That’s a lot of responsibility. What we do and say, our children will do and say. We create cycles. They can be positive ones that we don’t want broken, like ending story time with a bit of silliness. Or our behavior can create cycles that are difficult for our children to live with and to break, ones that they spend a lifetime wrestling with. Parents, it all starts with us.
Honesty. We want our kids to be honest. We don’t want them lying to us or their friends. No stealing or cheating. We want them to be trustworthy. But what kind of example are we setting? We can tell them to be truthful, but if they see us bringing office supplies home from work, calling in sick when we’re fine, or accepting the extra change the cashier mistakenly gave us, we can’t expect them to be more honest than we are.
Health. If you want your kids to go out, play and exercise, you also need to be active. You want her to eat her vegetables? You need to have broccoli and carrots on your plate as well. When you and your kids engage together in a healthy lifestyle, they will continue to do so when they are on their own.
Finances. For many of us, trying to make ends meet can be tough. We may not be getting the pay we think we deserve, but with the money we do earn, we need to model responsible use. So, show your child how you use coupons and shop sales. Allow him to see that you choose to put away a few bucks into savings instead of getting a latte or eating out. Show constraint; don’t buy on impulse. Model how you make a plan and save for big-ticket items.
Relationships. We all hope our children will find the love of their life and live happily ever after. The truth is, though, that over half of marriages end in divorce. And children often mirror the relationship they witnessed growing up. So, what does that mean for parents? It means we need to truly focus on our partner: hold hands, kiss, have date nights. Even if you do not have a partner, you can still model healthy relationships by treating others respectfully, setting appropriate boundaries, and using effective conflict resolution skills.
Use Your Words. Growing up, my father would hit me. I went to preschool one day with a black eye, only to have my head hit against a wall the next day. I swore that I would never hit my own children when I became a father. Yet, when Madison was two, I smacked her leg one day when she was disobeying me. The cycle I inherited was not going to stop so easily. I realized that I was modeling aggression as a way to solve a problem, and that if I wanted something different for her, then I had to use words, not hands. I worked on it and never struck her again.
Pursue Dreams. Most of us are not in a position to drop everything and pursue our dreams. Yet, we do want our children to go after theirs. Although we may not be able to quit our jobs and move to Hollywood, we can show our children that our other aspirations are important enough for us to follow. Want to run a 5k? Sign up, train, and go for it! Always wanted to be a writer? Start your own blog. When our children see us pursuing our dreams, it inspires them to pursue theirs.
It’s incredible how much influence our actions can have on our children’s futures. The traditions we start with our children will probably continue with their children. The routines we have in our homes today, we will see in theirs tomorrow. Cycles are very difficult to break, so why not create the best cycles you can, the kind that don’t need to be broken, the kind that no therapist will ever have to hear about? We have that power. It starts with us. It starts today.