Kids don’t miss a thing. Not a single thing. At the top of their job description is to learn as much as they can about the world around them and they do this beautifully. For us as the adults in their lives who want to see them soar, it can be wonderful to watch, and terrifying – sometimes all at the same time. We will have the privileged view from the front row as they learn and grow and find their place in the world, but it may be scary too because some of the most important things they will be learning will come from us – and we won’t even realise that we’re teaching.
As much as they are sponges, they are mirrors. Beautiful mirrors with uncensored actions and uncensored words that they learned from watching and listening to us. I have lost count of the number of times I’ve gone to redirect my children to a better response or a better way of being only to find the truth staring me down like I’m a hunted thing – they learned that from me – the good things and the not-so-good things. I didn’t tell them. I didn’t teach them. I just ‘did’. And it’s powerful.
1. Everyone matters – even if they don’t immediately matter to you
It’s easy to be kind and generous to the people who have influence over our lives, but most of the world exists outside our tiny circle. Watching the way we relate to the waiter, the person who gives way to us in traffic, the person who doesn’t, the people with influence, and the people with none, will help our kids realise the power of their own humanity, and that they are a part of something bigger – not above it and not separate to it.
It starts with an attitude that they’ll pick up from us – that everyone matters, or not. This will filter through to the way they respond to the world, and whether it’s with kindness, generosity, empathy and compassion, or with arrogance and indifference. Eventually, the world tends to return serve accordingly.
2. How to deal with imperfection
Our flaws hold our character, vulnerabilities and some pretty fabulous stories. Imperfections are the texture of us and our lives – and they’re beautiful. They’re also unavoidable, so we may as well embrace them. When our kids see us loving who we are and who they are because of those imperfections, not despite them, they’ll have what it takes to stare down (sometimes with a giggle) that which might threaten to overrun them.
3. How to treat those who are different
It’s easy to feel compassion for those whose flaws are the same as ours, but there is nothing uniform about humanity. We struggle with different things, we’re weakened by different things, and different things will be at the heart of our making and our undoing. Sometimes it’s easier to judge than to be open to someone who is different, but these are the critical moments in which our kids will learn (or not) that there are different ways to be – not better, not worse, just different.
4. Everyone embarrasses themselves sometimes
But one day those stories will be gold. All of us have moments (days? lives?) where pride, grace and dignity take a battering. Sometimes it’s not so much a battering but a steam rolling. We’ve all done things that are so cringe-worthy, it would make reality television blush. Yeah – those things.
Of course, the intention rarely is to become the centrepiece of someone else’s dinner conversation somewhere – but it happens. These stories make up the glorious, sweaty, messy details of being human – it’s what we do. Sharing our own stories about when things didn’t go to plan will help strip the shame from theirs, making our kids less critical and judgemental of themselves, and others.
5. How they deal with rejection
Tell your kids about the times you didn’t get what you wanted. It will soften the fall when it happens to them. It’s the magic of the ‘me too’. How we deal with our disappointments will pave the way for how they deal with theirs. Let them see that knock backs aren’t knockouts. It will preserve the beautiful vulnerability that will make them great at taking chances – with relationships and with life. Let them hear about the times rejection moved the wrong things out of the way so the right things could find you.
6. That sometimes it’s worth the risk
Of course our children need to be protected, but they also need to be given the opportunity to learn that they can be resilient and resourceful, and that failure doesn’t lessen them. Holding them too close, guarding them too fiercely or overprotecting them might be teaching them that it’s best to hold back. They’ll be safe, but they might end up with a life half-lived.
7. Values – and they won’t always be the ones you think
What we attend to is what will become important for them. If our kids cop a tongue-lashing for the plate they accidentally break, things will become more important than people. If we lose it when they bravely fess up to a stupid mistake, keeping secrets will become more important than honesty and courage. They might be kids, but there’s nothing wrong with their instinct for self-preservation, and what they want to preserve most of all is what we think of them.
That doesn’t mean no boundaries. What it means is responding to what they do in such a way that it reinforces the values we want to teach. Sometimes that might mean letting go of what they’ve done wrong, in favour of reinforcing what they’ve done right. Sometimes it means holding back on our completely valid, highly-charged response so they feel safe enough to come to us next time. We’re building humans, and those humans are going to get it wrong. Sometimes it will be mind-blowing how wrong they get it. We were (are) the same.
The best way to keep them on track is to make sure we have influence, and that will only happen if we’re the ones they can come to when they’re less than impressive, with their vulnerability and frayed edges on show, and not just when they’re ticking all the boxes on the pages that note their brilliance.
8. That their voice is important
Whether they’re stating their case about why they should be allowed to stay up, why vegetables are for punks, or why the bad grade was actually your fault, hear them out. Then respond. We’re teaching them about their own influence – the existence of that and the power of that, and it starts with having a voice. We’re also teaching them the value of listening to other people – their opinions, ideas, thoughts – and that doing this doesn’t have to mean that you go along with everything that’s said.
9. Sometimes you just have to run it out, talk it out, hug it out, or eat the dang cake
Bad days are inevitable, but they don’t mean a bad life. Neither do bad years. Ditto for bad friendships. It’s okay to surrender to it sometimes – the tough stuff can get exhausting – but it’s also important to know when to get back up, dust yourself off, and be open for what comes next. Let them see how you deal with your bad days. If they can see you acknowledge them, move through them and get back up, then they’ll be more ready to do the same with theirs without being crumpled by the heaviness of it all.
10. Whether the glass is half empty or half full
They will look at the world through a lens. We all do. Through that lens, they will see the world as being geared in their favour or against them. They’ll hear your interpretations of disappointment and the motives of people, and they’ll watch how you recover after a fall. Life is a series of stories put together, end to end. The quality of life isn’t so much about what happens, but about the details that sharpen our focus.
11. How to be in relationships
They learn so much about relationships by looking at ours. Whether it’s warm, stingy, generous, loving, nurturing, critical, nasty, abusive, distant – whatever it is – be alive to the fact that they are watching, and setting the foundations for their own future relationships.
12. To play – and not to stop
Do you laugh with them? At yourself? At the world? Are you silly with them sometimes? You’ll be doing them the greatest favour if you show them how that fun thing is done, and that grown-ups need to play too.
Being a kid is busy work. There’s a lot to learn out there and they’re watching, listening and learning, slowly building the framework for the adults they will be and the lives they will lead. It’s exciting to know that we can have so much influence in that, and it’s daunting. Along the way our own imperfections will glare at us through the words and actions of the smaller people standing beside us. Thankfully though, we don’t have to be perfect for them to be great.
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Attend a Toolbox parenting group
The four Toolbox groups – Early Years (0-6), Middle Years (6-12), Tweens and Teens (12-18) and Building Awesome Whānau (0-12) are available throughout the country. In an informal, relaxed and friendly environment participants are equipped with practical skills and strategies that can be immediately put to use. Over six sessions, key parenting principles are explored and participants are encouraged in their parenting. Find out more and register here.