We Are Always Teaching

How well do you know your children?  Luckily, most parents would answer that question confidently with an assurance that they know their kids quite well.  This is especially true with school-aged children.  On the other hand, the closer a child moves towards 18, this certainty of knowing ones child begins to decrease as independence grows.

I often ask parents about “knowing” their children as a part of the counseling process when working to improve family relationships.  The interesting thing is that no matter how well parents are plugged in to their children, they are not the experts in the house, the child is.

What I mean by this is that we may know a lot about our kids, but they are more of an expert on us than we are on them.  Let’s consider this, how many different issues in the world are you aware of each day?  How many different things are you juggling each week?  Now, answer those questions for your child.  The average 8 year old does not think about world conflict, if the economy will collapse, bills, mortgage, getting their hair done, paying for their older siblings college, retirement, getting this child here and that child there on time, etc.  We take up a larger part of their awareness than they do of ours.

To our children, we are the largest and most significant part of their world.  This is, of course, more prominent the younger they are.  Because of this, our children are always learning from us, even when we don’t realize it.  The first area of learning is that they learn a lot about us as individuals.  Since we are the gate keepers to everything: food, privileges, money, etc., it is ingrained early on that a child needs to know as much about us as they can to better navigate the their world.

Children have an innate drive to figure us out.  The more they know about us and how we work, the more successful they will be at pursuing their wants.  While this is a great thing and enhances our ability to connect and teach our children, there is a downside; they see everything.  Our children quickly learn whether or not we are impatient, what things we really get aggravated about, if we follow through on the things we tell them, how we treat our friends, if we get enough sleep or eat healthy, if we are honest.

The second area of learning is about the world.  Through us, our children begin to form opinions about the outside world.  A great example of this is political affiliation.  You ask the average middle-schooler today about whether they are Republican or Democrat and they will respond in a manner consistent with their parents.

Yet, these same kids are unable to coherently discuss most political issues.  They believe that their parent’s choice is right and follow in kind.  It is not that this is unhealthy; in fact it is a wonderful thing that some parents fight against.  I recently talked to a parent who was adamant that she was not going to influence her child’s faith at all so that the child could truly be free to choose when she is older.

Because of this, I would argue, that child will have less of a healthy foundation in later life.  We need to recognize this effect we can have and use it wisely, not abdicate it.  This process is not, however, just limited to politics and faith.   This is where children can also learn to be prejudiced, insensitive to those with need, untrusting of authority, etc.  All because of how our children see us dealing with and responding to the outside world.  An example I have given before regarding authority is when parents regularly side against teachers and support their kids.  The most immediate effect of this is a child that has no respect for a teacher’s authority.  When we support the teacher’s authority, children show respect as well.

The third and most vital area of learning is that our children perceive things about themselves by how we deal with them.  A child’s foundation for how they view themselves begins with the relationship they have with their parents.  Take the example of the parent that regularly makes commitments to do things with their child.  The time comes and goes and the parent responds to the child explaining how busy they were and they plan another time.  Time after time the time together takes the back seat to other more serious or pressing issues.  Now, on the one hand, the child may be learning that their parent does not keep their word.  But on the other hand, the child then searches for meaning and comes to the conclusion that they are not that important to their parent and that so many other things in life hold more value than they do.  If you don’t believe this happens, I have heard thousands of examples of this over the last 20 years from kids in my office.

The challenge is to accept that our children begin life pre-programmed to learn from us and that this effects three key areas of their life: what they think about us; what they think about the world; what they think about themselves.  Ask yourself in each area, what are you teaching?

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