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 shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️

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