The Children Are Watching – And Learning

I’ve been thinking about how we teach our children. Beyond the classroom, what (and how) are they learning from the adults in their lives?

My children’s current favorite movie is Wonder. I have mixed – and entirely selfish – feelings about this new obsession. On the one hand, it’s clearly an incredible movies for demonstrating the importance of kindness and empathy. On the other hand, I can go through an entire box of tissues during a single viewing and then my nose is puffy for the rest of the day.

Anyways, the movie follows the story of a 5th grade boy with facial deformities as he navigates his first year in public school. As you might expect, not everyone is kind to young Auggie Pullman. One of the most telling scenes for me is when we meet the mother of the biggest bully. You can see immediately why her kid is a pill – she’s an awful human being. Is it any wonder her son is a meanie?

In watching the movie, I’m reminded that our kids are always learning by our example, whether we intend them to our not. They pick up their cues from the things we do, the values we reflect, the activities we prioritize.

Last month, I attended a local iteration of the national March for our Lives, organized by students at Burgin High School. It was 35 degrees and raining steadily and I was sorely tempted to stay inside, snug and warm with my kids, but instead I bundled up and headed out. It was important to my heart that I be there – but it was also important that my children see me do it.

Talking through all the levels of the event with them was hard. That’s some emotional heavy lifting right there, to explain that children are being shot to death in schools and that no one is doing anything about it. My sign read “give teachers pensions, not guns” which required another whole conversation into the basics of retirement savings as well as the mass hysteria that has given rise to the idea of arming teachers.

I didn’t force my kids to come with me, but I wanted them to know that I was going – and why.

I’m trying to be more intentional about walking the walk and not just talking the talk with my kids, and not just about issues of political significance. Now that they’re old enough to entertain themselves for a while, I announce my intention to hit the exercise machine in our den – and then do so, emerging thirty minutes later to threaten them with sweaty hugs as they squeal and flee. Exercising after they go to bed is fine, too, but I want them to see me being active.

I started drinking more water when I noticed that none of my kids hydrate very well and I (mostly) stopped sneaking desserts after they go to bed when my daughter caught me one night, materializing unexpectedly in the kitchen as I was halfway through a bowl of ice cream. “You told us eating treats every day isn’t healthy,” she accused. Busted. All my talks about the value of vegetables and the importance of moderation mean exactly nothing if she thinks I’m packing away cookies the moment her back is turned.

The other day, my son invited a friend over and I worked on a quilt while they played. The boys got bored after an hour or so and asked me to play with them (i.e. to think up and facilitate some exciting new game). I declined, explaining that I was already engaged. It was hard. I feel guilty when I don’t drop everything for my children. The lyrics to that song about the dad who never had time for his son play in my head like some accusatory soundtrack from parenting hell. But I’m learning to accept that claiming my own time is not just okay – it’s essential. I have interests and priorities beyond being their mother. And in that moment, what I wanted to be doing was working on my quilt because there was an exhibit deadline looming.

Little eyes are always watching and absorbing. They see how I speak to the cashier at the store and they notice if I take time for myself during the day. They see when I’m frazzled and stressed and they watch how I respond. Sometimes I get it right and take big deep breaths or even walk away and stand in my room for a few minutes. Sometimes I get it wrong and I shout.

But I hope they see that I’m trying. Whether it’s going for a run, making a batch of cookies for a friend, or standing in the freezing rain with a slowly-disintegrating cardboard sign, I’m trying to make a difference within my small sphere of influence. And I hope that they will, too.

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