The Things Our Kids Will Learn From Us (Whether We Like It or Not)

What They'll Learn From Us (That We Won't Even Realise We're Teaching)

Kids don’t miss a thing. Not a single thing. At the top of their job description is to learn as much as they can about the world around them and they do this beautifully. For us as the adults in their lives who want to see them soar, it can be wonderful to watch and terrifying, sometimes all at the same time. We will have the privileged view from the front row as they learn and grow and find their place in the world, but it will be terrifying because some of the most important things they will be learning will come from us – and we won’t even realise that we’re teaching.

As much as they are sponges, they are mirrors. Beautiful mirrors in fleshy skin suits with uncensored actions and uncensored words that they learned from watching and listening to us. The number of times I’ve gone to redirect my children to a better response or a better way of being and the truth stares me down like I’m a hunted thing – they learnt that from me – the good things and the not-so-good things. I didn’t tell them. I didn’t teach them. I just ‘did’. And it’s powerful.

What they’ll learn from us (whether we like it or not).

Everyone matters, even if they don’t matter immediately to you.

It’s easy to be kind and generous to the people who have influence over our lives, but most of the world exists outside our tiny circle. Watching the way we relate to the waiter, the person who gives way to us in traffic, the person who doesn’t, the people with influence, and the people with none, will help them to realise the power of their own humanity, and that they are a part of something bigger, not above it and not separate to it. It starts with an attitude that they’ll pick up from us – that everyone matters, or not. This will filter through to the way they respond to the world, and whether it’s with kindness, generosity, empathy and compassion, or with arrogance and indifference. Eventually, the world tends to return serve accordingly.

How to deal with imperfection.

Our flaws hold our character, our vulnerabilities and some pretty fabulous stories. Imperfections are the texture of us and our lives and they’re beautiful. They’re also unavoidable so we may as well embrace them. When our kids see us loving who we are and who they are because of those imperfections, not despite them, they’ll have what it takes to stare down (sometimes with a giggle) that which might threaten to fall them. 

How to treat those who are different.

It’s easy to feel compassion for those whose flaws are the same as ours, but there is nothing uniform about humanity. We struggle with different things, we’re weakened by different things, and different things will be at the heart of our making and our undoing. Sometimes it’s easier to judge than to be open to someone who is different, but these are the critical moments in which our kids will learn (or not) that there are different ways to be – not better, not worse, just different.  

How to be in relationships. 

They learn so much about relationships by looking at ours. Whether it’s warm, stingy, generous, loving, nurturing, critical, nasty, abusive, distant – whatever it is – be alive to the fact that they are watching, and  setting the foundations for their own future relationships. 

Everyone embarrasses themselves sometimes, but one day those stories will be GOLD.

All of us have moments (days? lives?) where pride, grace and dignity take a battering. Sometimes it’s not so much a battering but a steamrolling. We’ve all done things that are so cringe-worthy, it would make reality television blush. Yeah. Those things. Of course, the intention is rarely to be the centrepiece of someone else’s dinner table conversation somewhere, but it happens. These stories make up the glorious, sweaty, messy details of being human – it’s what we do. Sharing our own stories about when things don’t go to plan will help to strip the shame from theirs, making them less critical and judgemental of themselves, and others.

How they deal with rejection.

Tell them about the times you didn’t get what you wanted. They will soften the fall when it happens to them. It’s the magic of the ‘me too’. How we deal with our disappointments will pave the way for how they deal with theirs. Let them see that knockbacks aren’t knockouts. It will preserve the beautiful vulnerability that will make them great at taking chances – with relationships and with life. Let them hear about the times that rejection has moved the wrong things out of the way so the right things could find you.

Values … And they won’t always be the ones you think.

What we attend to is what will become important for them. If they cop a tongue lashing for the plate they accidentally broke, things will become more important than people. If we lose it when they bravely fess up to a stupid mistake, keeping secrets will become more important than honesty and courage. They might be kids, but there’s nothing wrong with their instinct for self-preservation, and what they want to preserve most of all is what we think of them. That doesn’t mean no boundaries. What it means is responding to what they do in such a way as to reinforce the values we want to teach. Sometimes that might mean letting go of what they’ve done wrong, in favour of reinforcing what they’ve done right. Sometimes it means holding back on our completely valid, highly charged response, so they feel safe enough to come to us next time. We’re building humans, and those humans are going to get it wrong. Sometimes it will be mind-blowing how wrong they get it. We were (are) the same. The best way to keep them on track is to make sure we have influence, and that will only happen if we’re the ones they can come to when they’re less than impressive, with their vulnerability and frayed edges on show, and not just when they’re ticking all the boxes on the pages that note their brilliance.

That sometimes it’s worth the risk.

Of course our children need to be protected, but they also need to be given the opportunity to learn that they can be resilient, resourceful, and that failure doesn’t lessen them. Holding them too close, guarding them too fiercely or overprotecting them, might be teaching them that it’s best to hold back. They’ll be safe, but they might end up with a life half-lived.

Whether the glass is half full or half empty.

They will look at the world through a lens. We all do. Through that lens, they will see the world as being geared in their favour or against them. They’ll be hearing your interpretations of disappointment, the motives of people, and they’ll watch how you recover after a fall. Life is just a series of stories put together, end to end. The quality of life isn’t so much about what happens, but about the details that sharpen our focus.

That their voice is important.

Whether they’re stating their case about why they should be allowed to stay up, why vegetables are for punks, or why the bad grade was actually your fault, hear them out. Then respond. We’re teaching them about their own influence – the existence of that and the power of that, and it starts with having a voice. We’re also teaching them the value of listening to other people – their opinions, ideas, thoughts – and that doing this doesn’t have to mean that you go along with everything that’s said.  

To play – and not to stop.

Do you laugh with them? At yourself? At the world? Are you silly with them sometimes? You’ll be doing them the greatest favour if you show them how that fun thing is done, and that grown-ups need to play too.

Sometimes you just have to run it out, talk it out, hug it out, or eat the damn cake.

Bad days are inevitable, but they don’t mean a bad life. Neither do bad years. Ditto for bad friendships. It’s okay to surrender to it sometimes – the tough stuff can get exhausting – but it’s also important to know when to get back up, dust yourself off, and be open for what comes next. Let them see how you deal with your bad days. If they can see you acknowledge them, move through them and get back up, then they’ll be more ready to do the same with theirs, without being crumpled by the heaviness of it all. 

Boundaries.

Boundaries are a bit of an abstract term. If they aren’t able to see you building and maintaining yours, they’ll have less to work with when it comes to build theirs. Telling them to keep their boundaries strong if they have never seen you establish and protect yours will be a bit like asking someone who has never seen red to paint something red.

And finally …

Being a kid is busy work. There’s a lot to learn out there and they’re watching, listening and learning, slowly building the framework for the adults they will be and the lives they will lead. It’s exciting to know that we can have so much influence in that, and it’s daunting. Along the way our own imperfections will glare at us through the words and actions of the smaller people standing beside us. Thankfully though, we don’t have to be perfect for them to be great for them.

21 Comments

Heather

Thank you for this article! As a parent, I have wondered often “where does he get this?” and honestly sometimes I have a hard time admitting I am the influence. In proud moments, I’m sure that my husband and I are rubbing off positively on him. Thank you for honoring that mistakes are supposed to be there too – that way we can reflect and improve, hopefully! As a school counselor, I feel these influences apply as well. The kids are always watching and what a great privilege to help instill values of compassion and kindness, glass is half full, healthy boundaries, etc. Thank you! This was so helpful.

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks so much Heather. I know exactly what you mean about those moments where you realise the influence you have. It’s sobering isn’t it! We’re all a work in progress. I’m so pleased this was helpful for you.

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Nina Benedetto

I love this topic ! The relationship we have to/with ourselves and to/ with the world is reflected or somehow ‘reacted to’ in our children. I once thought you teach children to have manners by correcting them and making them say “please and thank you”. My grand daughter is very polite because we are very polite to her. Being considerate is such a great life skill and it really REALLY matters. Thanks for this message.

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Hey Sigmund

Yes, they watch everything don’t they, and learn more from what they see than from what they are told. Thank you for your insightful words.

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MINDA CALDWELL

I appreciate your articles. I’m almost 80 yet I find what you say relevant when I’m dealing with adult children, grandchildren and great grandchildren ages 0 to 8.

I have done most of your suggestions when my children were growing up. It’s touching to watch them teach and practice the same habits, attitudes and activities with their own children.

Thanks for sharing.

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Hey Sigmund

What great reinforcement to see the things you taught your kids, now being taught by them to theirs. It sounds as though you have been a wonderful influence.

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Scott

Hi

I’m using and linking to many of your articles in relation to my role as High School Counselor of an International School in China. This one in particular made me sit up and think about my own parenting and the shortfalls thereof. Yes, we need to embrace our imperfections and recognition and acceptance are the first steps towards sustainable change. I come back here time and time again for a deep breath, a re-boot of my values and a reminder of Who I Am. Thank you, again, endlessly and sincerely.

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks so much Scott. Yes, it can be difficult to embrace the things about ourselves that are less than perfect but it’s so important, for us and the people around us. I’m so pleased the articles are helpful for you and I hope that you’re always able to find what you need when you come back here.

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Eva

This is so, so true. My granddaughter and I were walking through the mall (in a hurry) and several retail personnel would ask “excuse me, can I ask you a question” (that’s the opening line to sell you something.) I usually put my hand up and say no thank you and hardly slow down my pace.

My granddaughter started saying it before I could (she is 4 yrs old). It wasn’t cute. She would hold up her hand and say “NO”. I might from now on say “thank you, but we don’t have time today”. I guess we just need to be kind to EVERYONE we meet.

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Debbie

I am the mom of two wonderful/loving/not perfect kids, ages 21 and 25, and I love your articles. I think this one applies to all of our children, regardless of their age. The things our kids learn from us may vary over time, but I don’t think they ever stop taking cues from us. And for that I am grateful.

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks so much Debbie. You’re absolutely right! They never stop watching the way we ‘do life’ and making their minds up about things based on what they see. It’s a big responsibility, but a privileged one.

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Tereza

Thank you for this great article. After reading it, i feel relieved because it seems like i am doing it right, well, almoust 🙂

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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