I remember as a child paying very close attention to my parents, especially when they didn’t think I was. I’d hear them talking in another room. Their words might not have been clear, but I could feel exactly what they were saying.
I’d see their faces fall when bad news came. I’d watch the way they moved around obstacles, or got stuck in the mud of their own worst ideas.
When they took a bold risk, I’d see them draw deep from unseen reserves. When the money was tight, and it almost always was, I’d hear the fear in their voices. I’d see them shed ten years and the weight of the world whenever we camped in the Sierras. To this day, pine trees smell like freedom and grace.
I’d hear my dad breathing hard, leaning against his shovel as he dug a hole for a fruit tree. Then keep digging. I’d see my mom take her lifelong love of sewing and turn it into a business, making dresses for perfumed ladies in Cadillacs. I’d see exuberance pour out of my father’s eyes when he played a Scott Joplin rag on the piano in the living room. I’d see her quiet focus and creativity as my mom turned root vegetables into yet another no-recipe pot of homemade soup. Every Sunday afternoon I’d see my dad on the patio in our backyard with a portable typewriter on his lap, clicking away on double onion skins with carbon paper in between, long letters to both sets of parents back in the Netherlands. On weekdays I’d see my mom’s mood lift as three o’clock rolled around – dad would be getting home from work any minute. I’d watch the smile spread across his face as she kissed him at the door, not every day, but often enough. I’d feel their love and respect for each other as they shared a daily cup of afternoon tea.
I saw all of this when they didn’t think I was watching.
We think we have the biggest impact on our kids when we make earnest speeches, but most of what our kids learn from us happens all around the edges of our careful lesson plans and ardent moralizing. They study us when we’re busy, caught up in the dance of our own lives, unaware that we’re being watched. As parents, who we are is so much more important than what we say.
How do you handle adversity? Do you crumble at the slightest incline in the road? When things go wrong, do you look for someone to blame? Or do you simply get to work? When we bear down on our problems, we teach our children about the immeasurable freedom released in the exertion of discipline and resolve. And by simply deciding to work around obstacles, we demonstrate the power of thought. A problem becomes a challenge, a challenge an opportunity, an opportunity a solution, and a solution an unforeseen blessing. By simply re-clothing the events of our life in new thought, we turn scarcity into abundance.
But explanations of these insights simply won’t do. We must embody them, model them, and prove their worth in the daily trials of our lives. Only then will our children come to mirror and embody these values for themselves.
How do you treat the waiter when he gets the order wrong? How do you negotiate a dispute with your neighbor about who should pay for the tree service or the fence construction? How well do you weather criticism from a supervisor or a sibling? How do you react when the cat throws up on the rug, again?
What do you spend your money on? How do you spend your time? What are the topics of your idle chatter? We know this – you spend your time, money, and energy on things you value. Your values are on glaring, continual display. Any child can see them.
As Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” And our children are always watching.