Parents sometimes joke about telling children to “Do as I say, not as I do”. When we say that it’s because we inwardly admit to ourselves that we are not always a model for the way we want our children to behave.
This was brought home to me by a talk a Swedish doctor gave on kindness, which a friend called to my attention. The talk itself was interesting in that the speaker makes the point that kindness to others is not just a noble virtue, it is also in our own self-interest to behave that way. One reason he gives as an example, is that our own behavior influences others. If we treat others with kindness they are apt to treat us the same way.
In the talk he gives a demonstration of the power of imitation. He performs a kind of “Simon says” exercise, telling the audience they are to do whatever he says. While telling them what to do he demonstrates: touch your nose, touch your head, touch your chest, touch your mouth. But this time when he says touch your mouth he puts his own hand to his ear. Only one person in the audience followed the instruction to touch his mouth. All the others did what the doctor did, not what he said, and touched their ears.
This is a very dramatic demonstration of the power of imitation. But those of us who are parents are all too aware of the role of imitation in children’s learning. Often we think about it in connection with children learning things we don’t like from others. Have you ever said, or heard others say, “He learned those words from the kids in school”. Or, “She picked that up from the child next door.” We worry about what our children are learning from what they see on television or in the movies.
But how about the things they learn by imitating us? Imitation is part of most learning, beginning early on. See how intently a baby studies your face when you babble and coo at her. Children copy the names we give to things, watch the way we do many things, such as learning to eat with utensils, manipulate objects, even turning on the remote control to the tv.
They also learn things we may not be aware we are teaching them. Have you ever asked a family member to tell someone on the phone you are not in because you don’t want to talk to her? Have you ever written a note to school saying your child was home with a cold when in reality a conflicting family plan had been made? Have you ever told someone her outfit was beautiful when you thought it most unattractive?
Little white lies seem to be part of what makes the world go around, avoiding hurting people’s feelings and at times smoothing difficult situations for ourselves. But our children are also getting the message that this is the way to handle things – and they don’t always apply what they see in ways of which we approve. Children often skirt the truth as a way to avoid parental disapproval or anger.
“Did you take your brother’s toy?” “No, he lost it.” Or, “Who turned the tv on?” “I didn’t do it!” Children are at times accused of lying in such situations and are strongly disapproved of. We criticize them for telling untruths to avoid blame or punishment. Yet it is not clear to them how this differs from some of the things they have seen us do, or the way we have handled certain situations.
We learn in life that it would not always be helpful or useful to be completely honest with everyone about everything. Everything is not black or white, and part of maturity is learning to respond appropriately depending on the circumstances. Children are more concrete, and do tend to see things as black or white – shades of grey are more elusive. One way we can help them learn is to become clearer ourselves about what we are doing and the ways in which our children may be imitating us.
This happens on so many levels, not just the little white lies, but the way we respond to a request for a favor from a friend or the beggar on the street, from the things we choose to buy or not buy, even the general way we interact with others – those we know as well as those we don’t.
Whether we like it or not, too often the real message our children take from us is, “Do as I do, not as I say”. That is the message children get – even when we don’t realize we are delivering it.
The speech I referred to at the beginning is worth listening to. Here is the link for those who are interested: