In parental osmosis, your influence can take two opposite paths. One is as a good example in which your children want to emulate your kindness or wisdom. The other is as a terrible example in which they will try their best not to be the uncaring, slothful, or cruel parent they have seen exemplified by you. The worst outcome of all is when your children assume that your bad behavior is the correct behavior, and so that is what they emulate. To be the best influence, you must be a person of clear character and integrity, not only in their eyes, but in truth, in life, and in all things.
Take stock of your values and actions. If you are rude to your elders, your children will most likely be rude to theirs. If you smile often, they are more likely to smile than not. If you smoke, they will see that as an endorsement for smoking, even if you tell them not to. If you always do what you say you will do, they will learn to do the same.
Our children learn from us in two ways. They learn by what you point out to them that they may never see on their own. And they learn by watching us. How we act matters just as much as what we intentionally teach.
Notwithstanding ADHD, bipolar, and other disorders, when your children do have behavioral issues, it may have more to do with you than you may think or admit. Often the habits, traits, and misdeeds of your children are just magnifications of your own values and actions. A mother who gossips is more likely to have a daughter who gossips. A selfish, self-centered father may have a son or daughter who, if mishandled, can be even more selfish and self-centered.
You will see parental osmosis in friends, neighbors, and your own family if you look closely enough. To teach your children well, you must know yourself well. I wonder how many people even see their own flaws. It’s quite common to hear people criticize others for flaws they themselves have. The flaw is so close to them that they easily recognize it in others and are quick to criticize, but without objective introspection they can’t see it in themselves. Most parents will never link their children’s flaws to their own, and few will see their children’s learned flaws as serious, if they see them at all. But your positive choices and actions also flow to your children. [. . .]
“When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.”
While your children will watch you without hesitation, tell them to “watch themselves” also, to observe what they themselves are doing and determine why they are doing it. Too often, young people react without understanding their motives and actions. Without reflection, they end up making wrong choices, getting into trouble, saying the wrong things, and not learning from mistakes. If they know how to reflect on their actions, reactions, and decision-making processes, it will help them cope the next time they face a similar situation.
Reflecting on their actions and reactions also helps children mature much faster. Only a mature child will think and act this way. Try it yourself, and then teach your kids how to do it. It will benefit them to learn and practice self-reflection.
Our kids watch us and learn from us from the earliest ages, even infancy. Be the man you want your children to model. As they get older, help them see what their actions tell others, and that life is all about the choices they make. They need to know why they make the choices they do, and how these choices impact both their own lives and those of others.
“If it is not right, do not do it; if it is not true, do not say it.”
Your children should understand that when they have emotions, those emotions are telling them something, and they shouldn’t be ignored. A bad feeling in your gut or tightness in your throat is not something you consciously bring about. Depending on age and emotional maturity, any person can learn right from wrong from the messages their body is sending.
When I was a young teen, I was hanging out with some friends of a friend of mine. It turned out they had a different set of values than I had. That night, with me as a passenger, they drove around and turned over people’s trash cans in a local neighborhood. I wasn’t happy about this at all, but had little influence (or the guts) to stop them. Besides, I thought I would look like a sissy to them for not going along: classic peer pressure.
I remember a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as this was happening. It wasn’t from being afraid of getting caught; it was because it was so wrong, so stupid and immature. That feeling in my stomach told me I didn’t want to be like them, and I never had anything to do with them again.
They had somehow become desensitized to the difference between right and wrong, and I didn’t allow myself to spend time with them and become desensitized myself. They seemingly accepted this group behavior individually, or maybe not. Peer pressure is a tough thing to deal with when you are young. It takes courage, strength, and integrity to stand apart. Your children need to know they have the support of their parents when taking a stand. They need your advice, and you should always be open with them. Otherwise, the advice they seek and follow will come from other sources.
I once stole a candy bar just to see if it was possible. I was successful in my thievery, but when I got home, I took one bite and threw the rest away. My remorse was telling me I had done something wrong. I could not enjoy an act that was not in keeping with the person I really was deep inside.
But not all children are the same. Some do not have the same values or remorse to help keep them straight. These children can more easily fall prey to peer pressure. If your child tends not to be remorseful for unethical acts, your parenting skills will be tested and you may need professional help.
Character flaws include things like rudeness, lying, and bullying. When flaws in character exist, they have to do with the values these children live by. Children will rarely decide to be rude or dishonest when they’ve been taught proper values.
However, I don’t suggest you teach your children to be pushovers. They need to be taught to stand up for whatever they believe in. But being firm does not imply being rude, and that lesson also pertains to parents. You can politely correct, you can firmly hold on to your beliefs without offending others, and you can graciously and respectfully disagree with a position or argument.
Of course, sometimes we can be rude for no other reason than we are upset. As a father, you might be rude to your children by ignoring them at the wrong time, by overpunishing them, by letting anger rule you, by treating them as unimportant, by interrupting them, and so much more. When you catch yourself being rude, especially in front of or to your kids, correct yourself and apologize, if appropriate—and usually it is appropriate, even if difficult. [. . .]
“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.”
—J. M. Barrie, Peter Pan
A father once found his four-year-old daughter typing on his computer keyboard. He asked her what she was doing, and she replied, “I’m writing a story.” He then asked her what the story was about, and she said, “I don’t know, Daddy. I can’t read.” This little girl had quite an imagination. She knew she was putting out a story, and it didn’t matter what it was about. Simply taking a joy ride on Daddy’s computer, she didn’t have a plan, nor did she need one. That would come later. When children are imagining, they are learning to fly, and practice makes perfect. Later on, their imagination skills can be refined to include flight planning and dreaming up places to go and things to be. Dads can encourage their children’s imagination by reading bedtime stories, playing make-believe, or just leaving them creative tools to play with on their own. Don’t be afraid if they have imaginary friends or talk to stuffed animals. Communication skills need practice, too.
Supporting our children’s dreams includes staying out of the way of those dreams, or better yet, encouraging their creativity. In his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi interviews many of the most creative people on Earth.
What he found out about their families is fascinating. Only about ten percent of these creative geniuses are from middle-class families. Most are from families of intellectuals where creative pursuits were strongly encouraged, while about thirty percent are from poor but hard-working families. The secret to creative success seems to be encouragement to pursue intellectual activity, either by those parents who know its value firsthand, by those parents who know its potential in making the lives of their children better, or by their children who recognize its potential. At ten percent, the middle class falls last. Maybe they’re too comfortable to dream and not particularly pushed toward intellectual pursuits—that’s not an environment that stimulates creativity. No matter where you find yourself on the economic or intellectual ladder, keep in mind your role in your children’s creativity. [. . .]
For four years while in the US Air Force, I lived near Mount Rushmore where Gutzon Borglum carved the faces of four US presidents on the side of a mountain. On the drive up to this national treasure, glimpses of it are around almost every turn. Its magnificence is unmistakable and inarguable. This one-of-a-kind monument is breathtaking, especially when you reflect on the skills of those who made it and the dangers they faced. It is perfect in our eyes as a national treasure. But if you look at it through binoculars, you will find cracks in the stone and details not so fine. But do we care? Of course not! We look at the total result that makes these small imperfections of no consequence at all.
So then why do we do just the opposite with ourselves and our fellow humans? For some reason, we take the small imperfections each of us has as humans and forget to measure them against the total work. Adopting this holistic perspective, you can understand that a supermodel and a worn-down housecleaner are both perfect as human beings. But we too often use our built-in binoculars to seek and find imperfections in others.
What if we took time to explain this expanded perspective to our young ones? What if we taught that the whole person is more than just the small parts that are contrary or critical? Would they not be just a little less judgmental about those of other races, faiths, abilities, and social skills, particularly those characteristics in which our fellow humans have little or no choice? Let the feelings your children may have felt when they themselves were being misjudged be assumed to have entered the hearts of those they may have judged unfairly. Most likely it will change their perspective.
“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”
Do you know the best way to teach your children how to show kindness to others? It’s simply being kind to others yourself, and also being kind to your children. It is paramount that you be a good example for your children. If they see you being kind to others and helping those less fortunate, they will be more comfortable acting in that same way.
Never accept rude behavior from your kids toward you or anyone. To combat a habit of rudeness in your children early, provide opportunities for them to help others so they can experience the feeling of doing good. Praise them when they are kind or when they go out of their way to help someone.
Teach your children the art and habit of giving. They should know that a little burden on their part could be a huge benefit for someone else. After all, if everyone gave help and got help, we would all be better off. How and who your children help can be more effective if thought out and performed with grace. Being in a position to offer help to someone is therapeutic. And what you give comes back many times.
When I was eight or nine, I remember being bullied by two or three “tough” guys on a street near my home. I lived in a questionable neighborhood, and I was understandably nervous and scared about this confrontation. Then, suddenly, a city bus driver pulled up, opened his folding doors, and told the bullies to leave me alone. I really appreciated that but, of course, he had to keep to his schedule and move on. The bullies continued to harass me, but what happened next was a real surprise. The bus driver had driven around the block to check on me again. This time the bullies listened and left while I quickly scooted home.
I’ll never forget the unselfish kindness of that young bus driver. I think of him and that incident often. He gave me an example of helping others that I will never forget: a black man in the late 1950s yelling at some white hooligans just to help me. He was a mentor to me, and I never knew who he was, but I will always remember his kindness.
One lesson feeds and complements other lessons. A vital key to the development of character and integrity is to teach your children responsibility and the meaning of facing consequences. I continue to bring up consequences because they are a necessary element for a balanced life.
A basic lesson in physics is, “for every action, there is a reaction.” In life, wouldn’t it be helpful if it were that clear! Feedback is a vital part of life, allowing you to adjust your ideas, thoughts, or behavior. When a mistake or bad choice is made, there should be a consequence—a lesson or penalty. If not, there is no learning nor correction.
Most of us think of consequences as a bad thing, but a consequence is nothing more than a result. A reward is a consequence also—a consequence of a job or act well done. Whether consequences are good or bad depends on many things, including desires, opinions, and outside influences, but mostly intent. Your child’s intent will hopefully be to put forth an honest effort toward a noble goal. If a child’s intent is honorable, a negative consequence should not involve guilt or punishment but rather be a worthwhile learning experience. While your actions are in your control, the results of those actions often are not. A good intention resulting in unforeseen results is a learning situation. Take your lesson and move on.
Our children need to learn what it’s like to win and to lose, and how to handle both. Failure is God’s hand molding you. Winning is God’s kiln, finishing what He and you have together molded. Too much losing will teach a child that he or she can never win, resulting in an expectation to lose or a choice to never try. Too much winning can mean a child is not being challenged and may become bored or overconfident. Too much losing will defeat a child. Too much winning may not prepare a child for the losses we all experience sooner or later.
We must all take responsibility for our own actions, and from those actions—good or bad—will follow consequences. We must learn how to both win and lose graciously. And everyone must learn and practice humility, realizing that each person is equal, each is special.
Some competitive fathers never let their children enjoy winning. If the children do perform well, it’s not good enough, because they should have done better. These fathers think constant pressure or ridicule makes their children stronger and tougher. But sometimes it takes a victory to make them feel more confident, and these fathers should back off and allow their children to enjoy it. At the other extreme, fathers can sometimes make challenges too easy for their children or overly praise them. This can give the false impression that success comes easily (and we know it rarely does). Success is achieved by overcoming barriers; the barrier must be a tough but conquerable challenge.
Humility is a great tool for balance. Just a little humility on your child’s part will balance out the jealousy of others and foster admiration. However, egotism will negate others’ favorable opinions of the otherwise wonderful qualities of your child. Being a uniquely talented or focused person is a special feeling. You and your children have a right to be proud when they are recognized as being outstanding at something, but don’t allow yourself or your child to boast too much. A superior attitude is offensive and disrespectful of others.
We are all special in different but equal ways. Outside of our own egos, no one is more special than another. Some are smarter, more athletic, more beautiful, kinder, more understanding, more interesting, or more hilarious. But no one is more or less special than someone else in the world of relationships. This has to be taught, because it does not come naturally. If you want your child to feel special, the healthiest feeling they can have is that of self-confidence, not overconfidence.
We have all seen children be cruel to other children at school, at home, and at play. The odd duck is criticized or made fun of because they are different, and because those who do the name-calling and perform cruel jokes feel they are superior. It’s been said that “kids will be kids,” and that is absolutely true. But what is more accurate is “kids who have a misguided or inflated view of themselves will be the kind of kids who act in disregard toward others.” When I see kids being cruel to other kids, I envision parents who do not understand how to help their children develop a good self-image without creating self-indulgent monsters. Then again, cruel children may act this way because they feel a need to inflate their ego due to a lack of self-worth at home. Help balance your child’s vision of self. Recognize when to build it up and when to moderate it.
Being positive and using positive language is powerful and something you need to be conscious of. When you say, “Don’t strike out,” that negative thought brings striking out to mind. Your words could be replaced by a positive statement, such as, “Keep your eye on the ball.”
The reason for being positive is the great power of visualization. Images created in the mind are as powerful as real images. If I told you not to think of a camel, what would happen? Did your camel have one hump or two? You did think of a camel, even if it was for a split second, didn’t you? Encouragement through negatives such as don’t, never, and can’t are powerful influences in a way you might not anticipate, even if they were meant to be positive.
Some negative statements are unintended, and others are direct and unacceptable from a parent. We have all heard some parents say, “You’re a brat!” or “You’ll never amount to anything!” or “You’ll never get a boyfriend if you don’t lose weight!” Never say such negative and cruel words to your child. Always be positive and kind, yet firm. When your children misbehave, tell them their behavior needs to improve. You are condemning their behavior but not them. Be a positive influence and an encouraging role model. Turn those negative statements into positives: “Let’s work on that behavior!” or “Let’s try that one again; I know you can do better!” or “I am so proud of you for walking thirty minutes today!”
Every child has varying strengths and weaknesses. As their father, you should know them. As an adult, you have already experienced success and failure. Knowing your children and your life experiences puts you in a special place to guide your children to become strong, confident people. While I had a strength in determination, I had many areas where I needed support. Having a more engaged father would have tremendously helped me to learn the following things much earlier than I did.
I am not alone in having fears.
Facing fear will dissolve it.
No one else is any better than me (“better at,” maybe, but “better than,” no).
Mistakes are okay. (Caveat: Knowingly doing wrong is not a mistake.)
You can’t wait for others to move forward.
You always have choices (this was a big one for me).
Character and integrity are vitally important.
Develop the joy and beauty of imagination. (With his stories of travel, my dad did help me with this.)
Decisions made for security are not the same decisions you would make for freedom (growth).
For example, determining to run a lemonade stand is a choice for freedom, but deciding you are too shy to sell lemonade is a choice for security. Similarly, going to college in your hometown is a secure choice, while enrolling in a school across the country is a choice for freedom.
Be a father who has a simple plan to listen to and learn about his children, who has a philosophy to teach his children about how life should be lived.
Building strong sons and daughters is difficult, demanding, and highly rewarding. It certainly takes effort and caring to do it in a way that will work best for each of your children. They are all different in temperament and ability. One important difference lies in your child’s gender. Boys and girls have different, gender-specific needs, and as Dads we must be sensitive to those needs. We will discuss this in the next chapter.
This article is an excerpt from Michael Byron Smith’s The Power of Dadhood.
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