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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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