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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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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