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Children are Watching


By Bill and Judy Elbring

Most adults do not realize how closely children watch them, all the time, hungry to learn how to behave, how to get what they want. I’ve noticed that when parents, and I include myself, think there is a lesson to be learned we will very carefully explain and show a child what is expected of them. But some of us must think that part of the time we’re invisible — or that our behavior is at any rate — and that our children will listen to what we say and somehow fail to notice what we do. This is simply not the way it works.
I believe our children hear only a fraction of what we say. Instead, they pick up quickly and unerringly on what we do. All my life I’ve heard that I shall be known not by my words, but rather by my deeds. It seems to me that this notion is crucially important to those who are concerned about the future of our children and the world they will create. It may be the most important realization in all of parenting.

Sometimes, though, the first clue we have about the importance of our actions is through our words. Every parent I know has had the experience of hearing their words or, perhaps even more shocking, their parents’ words come out of their child’s mouth. The words are merely a clue that serves to alert us to pay attention to our children’s behavior and to notice the subtleties in how they act. And, sure enough, we see ourselves, with all our moods and gestures, our attitudes and body language, played out for us by our children.

No, I don’t think our children use our words to learn about life. I think the words are just so much sound and noise. It’s our actions, our behavior, the little things we do each day that teach our children. Looking at some people and turning our backs to others. Borrowing without asking. Saying something we don’t mean. Pretending we feel one way when we feel another. Spanking a child for hitting. Screaming at a child to be quiet.

There’s more. Just let us fail to deal with a personal issue or a family secret — like being beaten when we were a child or not telling anyone that Mommy or Daddy drinks — and we pass our unhealed issues on to our children so they have to deal with our unfinished business. A short story to illustrate: there was a woman who was afraid of men. She sought therapy, intent on making a thorough examination of her life. She included her family in her search to understand her fear. At last, she learned that as a child her mother had been sexually molested by a neighbor. Her mother had been very frightened and had not spoken of the incident since. But she acted out her feelings and treated men as scary and dangerous. So her daughter learned to imitate her mother’s response to men without ever experiencing any "abuse" herself. Her mother’s unhealed attitudes, posturing and behavior were passed unexamined directly to her daughter.

So, how do I become the best possible parent, a healthy model for the adults of tomorrow? There seems to me only one clear answer — I become the kind of adult I would like my children to become. I do my personal work. I examine my life, heal and make peace with the past, and strive to be someone I can be proud of. I find out who I am, what I believe, why I behave as I do, how I view people and how they view me. I do my work as if my life depends on it. If I have any hesitation about doing this for myself then I look into the faces of my children, for that matter into the face of any child, and I do my work for them. And always I remember that the children are watching me to see how to live the gift of life.



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