Being a parent is one of the few roles that gives you real time, immediate feedback on how you’re doing. Being a teacher is another one. Both roles operate very similarly. You have a roadmap, objectives that you’re trying to accomplish, but as it turns out, the people watching you learn in ways that you often don’t expect. I was reminded of this recently by my daughter Olivia. Apparently I raise my voice when I’m trying to get my point across. I say “apparently” because while I’m aware that I do it, I wasn’t aware at how much the girls noticed it. And, I assumed that I don’t raise my voice do it very often. Clearly I was wrong, and that led to a beautiful teachable moment for us all.
Friday morning started like any other day. Quiet time, breakfast, the usual battles over what clothes to wear. Finally I had successfully gotten everyone out the door and into the van when I heard yelling from the garage. It actually sounded like screaming, and immediately I knew who it was and who she was talking to. I didn’t know what she was yelling about, but I knew that it was Olivia berating her sister London about something. How did I know this? Certain folks pull your triggers more than others, and for these two middle children, (#2 and #3 in birth order), they go at it frequently. Olivia usually takes it upon herself to whip people into shape, and London has no intention of doing anything besides what she wants to do. So, there’s the perpetual conflict.
At any rate, in this particular moment, we were rushing, we were late, and I’d had enough of the yelling so I barged outside and in my “calmest” voice I interrupted the shouting match with my own raised voice. What are you yelling about? Why are you talking to your sister like that? I demanded in my own accusatory tone. After waiting (briefly) for a response (that was barely complete), I launched into a lecture of my own about how no one wants to be talked to that way and you should really think about how you speak to your sister. But on the drive to our destination, you could tell that both of us were still upset and the conversation wasn’t quite finished. I was annoyed, but couldn’t put my finger on why. This wasn’t the first conversation I’ve had with Olivia about how to treat her sister, why couldn’t she just get the lesson…
Meanwhile, I could see Olivia stewing in the rearview mirror, working through her own emotional reaction to my reprimand. Finally, Olivia spoke up and what she said floored me. She began by saying, daddy, I have something to tell you. In my mind I’m thinking, uh-oh, what did I do now?
Daddy, you know, I think you’re a good role model for me to follow. That’s why I try to do what you do, because I think you’re a good role model (there’s that word again.) So, when I see you be firm with us with your words, I try to be firm too when I think it’s important. Earlier, I was trying to tell London that she shouldn’t unbuckle her seat belt because we were getting ready to go and you wouldn’t want her to get out of the van. So, that’s why I was yelling.
Without saying it directly, essentially she was implicating me in her decision-making. Initially, I didn’t know how to respond. I was impressed and proud that she could articulate what was on her mind, and confident enough to communicate it well. I was disappointed that I hadn’t set a good model myself in differentiating when it was or wasn’t appropriate to raise your voice. But most of all, I was relieved and happy to be having the conversation. She could have easily shut down and not even brought it up. Or she could have instead taken an unintended lesson from the whole situation such as, well, my parents say one thing but expect us to do another so I guess adults are all hypocrites. What an easy message for kids to pick up when there are unexplored gaps between our actions and our values.
Instead we had the opportunity to talk it out. I acknowledged that actually, maybe I do raise my voice too often, and perhaps I haven’t been clear about when it’s really appropriate. So we talked through some examples (for example: if Sloane is about to waddle into the street, then is an appropriate time to be firm with a raised voice because of imminent danger. But talking to your sister while sitting in the van…probably best to use an inside tone).
I was reminded once again that they’re always watching, and what they learn has more to do with how we live, than what we say. That goes for everything. You want your kids to be anti-racist? You’ve got to model that in your actions and behavior. You want your kids to be grounded in faith that matters? Then don’t just send them to church and expect them to get it through osmosis. Let them see you struggle with your own questions. You want them to change the world? Do your part, and bring them along with you. Parenting is showing and telling. Let’s do more of the former, and less of the latter.