I get this itch to give advice. Despite knowing it’s ineffective and so frequently pointless.
Today’s advice: hypocrisy is the cornerstone of effective parenting.
Not THAT kind of hypocrisy, where you tell your kids not to smoke and then light up. The opposite kind.
Where “we don’t have dessert before dinner,” so you abstain from the Halloween mini while prepping.
Where shouting is not an effective problem-solving tool, so if you catch yourself shouting you try to take a deep breath and regroup. Or take yourself to another room.
I had a head start on this parenting truth. I had the benefit of being seven years older than my eagerly-awaited, beloved little sister. She was my treasure, and she adored me.
Know what adored means In Real Life?
Adored means the two-year-old plays with your favorite toys… because you do. It’s why the two-year-old sprints if you smile wide and chirp, “How fast can you run to that tree?”
It’s how your mother gives you the evil eye when she hears Words We Don’t Say on your sister’s lips.
Honestly, I tried telling her what to do. You’re laughing at my nine-year-old self — sternly telling a two-year-old that she has to eat with a fork, not her hands. Or explaining about shoe-tying, and the importance of actually wearing shoes.
But telling got me nowhere. And I had abundant evidence that what I did — what she saw me doing — packed a wallop. What are good things for two-year-olds to do? Those are the things you, at nine, now do. That’s how you care for this treasure.
Gonna sneak candy from the Halloween bucket? How sure are you that her tiny cat-feet aren’t creeping up behind you? Want to catch up to your friend at the swimming pool? Holler. Because it takes no imagination to see Baby Sister sprinting across the wet concrete, tripping, and skidding. Heck, she already does this on her own time. So your footsteps stay slow and measured.
I went to college when my treasure started middle school. I modeled drinking at parties, and relationships with guys. Not always well, mind you — by then she had a clear grasp of the negative example — but better than I might have. Want to teach your 13-year-old sister about date rape? I didn’t either. Besides, she could always tell when I was lying.
Fast-forward a heaped handful of years, and now I’m pregnant, getting ready for new small people to dog my every step. I promptly start mincing my oaths (“Drat! Well, sugar-and-spice!”), much to the amusement of my hard-bitten colleagues in the computer room. But I’d already heard a baby voice lisping curses, and the curses we used while repairing servers are not something one wants to explain to a child. (Or anyone, really, but I digress.) The only way I knew to keep a baby from cursing is not to curse, and I figured it would take more than nine months of practice to clean my mouth.
Next came the balanced diet, the vegetables piled high. A steep decrease in sweets. I have daughters, so as they grew I spoke of how I liked getting stronger through exercise, and when I could see I needed to eat more healthily. I tried to not even THINK the word ‘fat’ as I looked at myself in the mirror… how do you push against the culture’s focus on skinny female bodies? By living the counterexample.
It’s all about living the (counter)example.
Want your child to develop a faith practice? Do faith-things in front of them. “Feeling spiritual” is not something people younger than twelve understand very well, and older than twelve they’re frequently skeptical of things they hear but don’t see. My Sweetie and I are Christian, so we went to church. Pretty much every week. Seated in the sanctuary, then studying for another hour. Or helping others study for an hour, by being Sunday school leaders. Caring for others, girls in tow. Building cinderblock houses is more skilled than you might think, but not beyond the abilities of a middle-schooler.
Want your child to engage with her community? Join a community service organization, and serve beside her. We chose Girl Scouts for our other service connection.
Want your child to have pleasant manners? Sit down at meals with him, with everyone, and you spend your meal talking with each other rather than doing anything else. (We have a tendency to read paper media at the table; it’s not any more virtuous than TV or smartphone stuff during meals.)
It wasn’t easy. My husband complained mightily about these weekends full of sports and Scouts and church. I, too, had my times of wishing, of remembering sleeping in.
But one of our girls turned out to be a boundary-tester, and when the teen years of testing kicked in I was glad we had years of routine to point back to: Get up. Get dressed. Get going. Your mood is not the primary mover, just like my mood has not been the primary mover these many years. Speak respectfully. Do the work.
Our nest has emptied. No one’s watching… me eat gummi fish after every meal. But they’re still watching me kiss their dad. Watching me speak respectfully even when my tone is Very Tense. Watching me go to the doctor even though it’s usually boring and they tell me, “Wait a week; it’ll probably pass.”
A few months ago my youngest told me, “I stand in line at the drugstore, and I think, ‘What would Mom do?’ Then I make conversation with the cashier. They think I’m interested!?! And they smile. It’s funny, how it makes them smile.”
It’s true, I’m not personally interested in the cashier’s life either. That, strictly speaking, is hypocrisy. But chatting makes cashiers smile. And shows my children what adding smiles is like. So wherever they are, they can picture, ‘What would Mom do?’
And we all have more smiles.