Teaching by example: some thoughts on the occasion of Father’s Day

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“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” 
James Baldwin

Before anything else…much gratitude goes to my father…along with apologies, forgiveness and so much love. He is no longer with us, but will always be with us and especially by his opinionated daughter’s side.

***

I’ve been meaning to write about parenting issues for a long time…but it’s a tough and touchy subject even for me. There are no recipes, I don’t care how many books and experts claim to have the “right” approach. Yes, there are useful guidelines out there, but people are different, have different parenting styles and belief systems. Children are different and have different needs. Nobody really wants parenting advice because it comes off as criticism, yet all of us who are parents want to know that we’re doing something right.

But…since Father’s Day is coming up, and given how much I’ve written about love, connection and authenticity, I thought to go ahead and share some thoughts on an issue that’s as important to me as a parent as it was to me as a child. And it has to do with teaching by example…with authenticity.

I found it very difficult growing up to reconcile parental guidance with parental example when the two didn’t match. I was taught about all these wonderful things, then witnessed my father putting them into practice in his work, yet hardly in his personal life.

As terrible as it sounds, it made him look like a fraud. Which is awful not only because we missed out on the close relationship we should have, and could have had, but because I refused his wisdom until very late in life…frankly, until shortly before he passed away. Before that, I admired his work ethic, his intelligence, and his help at times, but could never get over the lack of authenticity in his personal life. It made me profoundly sad and angry.

Let me clarify that this isn’t about perfection, about expecting a parent to be a superhero who never makes mistakes, is there all the time, agrees with everything and basically plays Santa 24/7. Nobody is perfect, and not everything in our lives is going to go smoothly. Parents have their own issues, are struggling with everything from finances to demands at work. Kids and parents disagree, argue and struggle quite a bit. I’ve had that experience with mom…but mom always walked her talk. It was a different story with dad. And given the consequences to both of us, my rule is that if we look into our children’s eyes and teach them things, these better be the same things we fight for and uphold in our own lives…personal and public.

Because of my experience, parenting for me is always about asking myself if what my children see is someone who, at least for the most part, lives what she preaches. Am I honest in my own life? Am I fighting for and prioritizing the things I believe in?

In my late teens, on a few occasions I asked dad why he gave up on certain things of value in his life…why he allowed such contradiction between what he believed and how he lived. He became uncomfortable, and always came up with some very theoretical and weak excuses. When I pushed, as is my style in case you haven’t noticed, he got irritated and dismissive.

All I wished for is to see my father truly happy. He was content with his work, which he used to overcompensate for what was missing in his personal life, but he was not happy. I wish I could have gone to visit him and not find him alone, or else hear about the few casual relationships he had over the years, but see him with someone he truly loved and who was good for him at his side. I wish I could have walked not into a bachelor’s pad filled with medical books and awkward emptiness, but into a home where dad was sharing what was important to him. I wish there would have been some holidays, I wish I could have witnessed some affection, tenderness, kisses and hugs, some lightness and laughter, some banter…not just see diplomas on his wall and read through letters of praise from students or colleagues. I wish that everything he guided me towards and I inherited from him as far as temperament could have been lived, witnessed and shared.

I often ask my boys about my performance as a parent, talk to them about their needs, my concerns and worries. When I ask them to give me constructive criticism and point out inconsistencies they notice, they keep me real and on track. And they always emphasize one thing that echoes my own wish towards my parents: “I/we just want to see you happy too”.

And so I suspect that, just as it was for me, and seems to be the case for my boys, for some of my friends’ kids, a parent’s authenticity, and also personal happiness are of great value to children. As parents we might end up underestimating how much our children feel and notice about what we do for ourselves vs what we teach them. They don’t expect us to be perfect or successful at everything, but they do expect us to live what we teach. Sometimes, perhaps too often, we strive to be really good caretakers…to share our highest ideals and values with our kids, yet fail to uphold them for ourselves. And in doing so, we risk jeopardizing our authenticity, as well as deprive our children of what they need to witness rather than just hear from us.

When I became a parent, I soon discovered that I was not only responsible for my boys, but also accountable to them for my values and choices in my personal life. And so I believe that if we want our children to be trusting, loving, confident, have courage to go for their dreams, create a framework of genuine connection in their own lives with others, with their work and whatever activities they choose, we have to show them how it’s done as much as possible, not just tell them about it.

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Peter says:

    A very honest and heart felt piece mate. I like the respect you show your Dad even though he wasn’t “perfect”.

    Have you read about the 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman? He says that some men really struggle to show affection so they compensate by being good providers, and in their mind, their provision IS showing their love. No matter that their kids still wish they could be more affectionate. In Australia we have a real macho culture for our men and it’s slowly changing but for a man to show affection, or even worse to cry in public, is seen as a sign of weakness and frowned upon. The first time another bloke hugged me at a Church conference I was horrified but now I’m, a good hugger of blokes !!

    I laughed at your comment that you refused your Dad’s wisdom until later in life. It took me a while to work it out too but I clearly remember when it changed for me. During my rebellious years, asking Dad for his advice, even though we were at odds about my lifestyle and in a sense bluing at the time, because I realised that he was very wise and even though I might have been cranky with him, and he might have been cranky with me, I still wanted the benefit of his advice. I also realised that he always helped me when I asked, even if we were at loggerheads, and that helped to cement my passion for loyalty.

    And btw you must be doing something right, you’ve raised two beautiful boys !!

    I like the thrust of your authenticity thought, so many parents say do what I say not what I do, but it doesn’t cut it because kids usually notice and often copy what their parents DO, in spite of their protestations. In a world where we are so accustomed to hypocrisy in so many around us especially our politicians it’s almost a surprise when you find someone who tells & lives the truth, although of course there are so many good, honest folk who’s word IS their bond. But like you say parents are full of their own contradictions and weaknesses that children don’t often understand.

    I like the biblical concept of being shepherds of our children, we only have them for a season and we are accountable for the way we treat them while we have them.

    Another good rant youngster 🙂

    Like

  2. Joanna L. says:

    Thanks for your insightful comments as always Peter. Glad you enjoyed this rant too. And are still calling me a youngster. As far as authenticity, we have to live what we preach…and nobody’s perfect, we all make mistakes, but we owe it to ourselves and the beautiful people we brought into this world to do our best. I hope through my writing I can contribute in some meaningful way…and certainly as a parent I do try to show my kids that we have to stand up for our beliefs and dreams, even if it’s a very tough and lonely place at times. I want them more than anything to have a foundation of compassion, courage and self-confidence/trust, to be loving and unafraid to express and receive affection.

    Like

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