“Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be?” - Dr. Brené Brown
I just finished reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. I made several notes and tried to really reflect upon myself and where I am in my life. But then I arrived at the last chapter, which happens to be about parenting. It smacked me across the face. From the second I read the subheading, I started to mumble and groan under my breath. The information was not new to me, but seeing it spelled out on paper left me with nowhere to hide.
Brown nonchalantly calls us all to the floor. “Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting,” she writes. Does she mean I cannot win at parenting by simply reading the most books and calling on my knowledge as an educator? She thinks I should work on myself? Humph. Perhaps I can see her point when I am reprimanding my daughter for interjecting a sassy, sarcastic response or pleading with my son to loosen up his rigid Type A tendencies. It’s possible I’m critiquing their behavior in an attempt to “kill” the messenger. Everything I find annoying about myself is magnified tenfold coming from a nine or eleven year old.
Early in our marriage, I remember learning this lesson in sessions with our counselor. He was a mediator navigating the tumultuous waters between two young, scared newlyweds barely scraping by in NYC. Even though I believed I had married a fixer-upper (project!), it became painfully obvious that I could only change myself, and there was a lot that needed changing. Here again, fifteen years later, I am reminded of the same lesson regarding my children.
Last week, a coworker was telling me about friends who sent their child away to a wilderness boot camp. The parents were not sure how to handle their teenage child’s behavior and rebellion--it was a desperate, last-resort attempt to save their child. It was a difficult decision made out of love and the desire to do the right thing. I asked my colleague if the plan was successful. His response cut straight to my heart. “No, because they were trying to change him and didn’t change anything about themselves, so when he returned to the same environment, it all went back to the way it was.” Mic drop.
Brown states, “It’s a terrible myth to believe that once we have children, our journey ends and theirs begins.” I cannot expect my children to take risks and work to improve themselves if I am not modeling that behavior. I cannot expect my children to admit when they are wrong if I never own my mistakes and shortcomings. I cannot expect my children to be lifelong learners if I do not embrace an open mind and desire to increase my knowledge and understanding. And I cannot expect my children to be compassionate and caring human beings if I do not engage and enact the same principals in my everyday life. I have to be the adult I want my children to be.
In Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, Lenore Skenazy discusses how a shift in societal priorities is increasing the pressure on parents to raise perfect children. “They [children] were something you had, not something that defined you. Now? They’re like publicly available report cards, documenting all our parental successes and failures. They embody our beliefs and who we are.” Parents are frequently judged based on their children, which leads us to further pull in the reigns in a desperate attempt to control everything our children do rather than focus on our own behaviors and actions. But I prefer Brown’s suggestion that we release the need for perfection and choose to be the best version of ourselves. I am much more concerned with what my children see and learn from watching me than the judgment and criticism I receive from other parents. We are all just trying to do the best we can.
As an application of this philosophy, I can evaluate the choices I make for myself as a person in order to examine the lessons I am teaching my children. There are countless negative examples I can list here, such as the way I lose my patience trying to get everyone ready in the mornings, or the way I tend to get all doomsday when I am bogged down with stress. I am definitely a work in progress. But I also make choices that teach some really important lessons along the way:
When I dedicate time to working out and using my body, I am setting an example that prioritizes health and self-care.
When I take time to read books, watch films, listen to good music, or celebrate the arts, I am modeling an examined life well-lived.
When I dedicate ample time for dates and quality time with my husband, I am modeling how to cultivate a loving and supportive relationship with a partner.
When I intentionally reserve time for conversation and interaction with my close friends, I am teaching my children the vital importance of human relationships.
When I offer my time and support to care for a person who is suffering, I am demonstrating compassion and a willingness to help those around us.
When I cry and crack open about my dying mom, I am letting my children know that grief is inevitable and it is okay to feel and embrace it all.
When I take a chance and use my voice to share my life story on the internet, I am teaching my children to take the leap and do what sets their soul on fire.
It’s not to say that children bear no responsibility for their actions. Quite the contrary, in fact. If I am able to acknowledge my mistakes and hypocrisies as an adult and strive to learn and rectify misbehaviors, then I am modeling how I hope my children will choose to handle their own shortcomings and poor choices. If I deny my mistakes and refuse to accept when I am wrong, or I choose to close my mind and stop listening and thinking critically, then I am teaching my children to hold to those same standards in their life. I want to nurture a home where all of us, young and old, can be ourselves, ask questions, and own it when we make mistakes. As Brown explains, “Compassion and connection--the very things that give purpose and meaning to our lives--can only be learned if they are experienced. And our families are our first opportunities to experience these things.”