The sound of it stopped me right in my tracks: A harsh, “Cut that out! That is not okay!” It almost sounded like she was snarling. Where had my daughter learned to talk like that to her little brother? It sounded so terrible coming from such a sweet little kid.
And where had I heard that sound before? Oh, no. I knew exactly where I had heard that before, and where my daughter had gotten it. Straight from my own mouth. Did I really sound like that? Oops sometimes I did.
That was not the way I wanted my kids to talk to other people. And it wasn’t the way I wanted to talk to them. But I had to hear it from my own daughter to recognize my own behavior. It was just like having a mirror held up to my face during my ugliest moment
• Be honest: It might seem like the best way to raise those impossibly perfect human beings is to hide our own shortcomings from them. But kids are smart. They see the shrinking pan of brownies.
They see you looking sideways in the mirror at yourself and scowling. As they get older, they find old pictures of you holding beer cans. It does kids good to know their parents are fallible. Being honest about our failures can keep them from feeling like they have to live up to some impossible ideal. If you’ve got teens and tweens who are confronting tough choices, like friends starting to drink and smoke and be sexually active, they’re probably going to ask you about your own adolescence.
Be upfront without going into too much detail. And then talk with your kids about the expectations they have for their own behavior and how you can support that. Make it clear that your household has rules and “But you did it, Dad!” will never be accepted as an excuse.
• Work together: When you notice one of your own bad habits in your kids, it can be an opportunity to try to improve together. Maybe your son is feeling down about his body and you’ve felt the same way. You could both find something positive and fun to do with your bodies every day for a week, like a bike ride, yoga, or a video dance game, and talk about how it makes you feel. Maybe you share temper issues with your daughter (ahem). Put a jar on the counter where each of you can put a quarter when you slip up. When the jar is full, pick a charity and make a donation.
• Remember, you’re separate people: This is hard for a lot of parents, myself included. I have to remind myself that, whether she learned them from me or not, my daughter’s behaviors and habits are hers and hers alone. Because we can all be pretty tough on ourselves, we tend to be tougher on our kids when their behaviors are eerily familiar. We can’t fix ourselves by fixing our kids.
• Have a sense of humor: You know, we’re not the only people our adorable little mirrors are reflecting. When my son, then 6, mouthed a perfectly timed expletive after a bad roll of the Yahtzee dice, I stopped short and then breathed a sigh of relief: That one wasn’t from me, it was from my mother-in-law. (And yes, after I stifled my laughter, we had a little chat.)
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