Our children first learn how to deal with the world and problem solve by watching to see how we do it and then copying us. Let me illustrate with an example. The other morning I was brushing my teeth. My 6-year-old daughter was brushing her teeth along with me. I did the ritual I usually do of finishing the process by rinsing my mouth with a mouth rinse that is to be held in the mouth for 30 seconds. As I was finishing I noticed my daughter holding a moth full of water. She had held the water for 30 seconds along with me. There was no rhyme or reason to this behavior as water is not the same as mouthwash. The only reason she was doing it was because she was imitating me. Trying out a behavior to see if she liked it or not. Experimenting, if you will.
The problem with imitation is that the focus of control changes. Rather then trying to “make” or “teach” our children what to do we must focus on our own behavior. Only by mastering ourselves can we provide the example our children need to master themselves.
Children seem to learn in only two ways, by following our example and by the experiences in life and what they learn from them. This means that our job as a parent is to set a good example and create an environment for them to grow up in that is tailored to meet their needs.
Let me relate a story that illustrates the power of example and the lesson some parents learned by having their child “mirror” their behavior.
A frail old man went to live with his son, daughter-in-law, and four-year-old grandson. The old man’s hands trembled, his eyesight was blurred, and his step faltered. The family ate together at the table. But the elderly grandfather’s shaky hands and failing sight made eating difficult. Peas rolled off his spoon onto the floor. When he grasped the glass, milk spilled on the tablecloth.
The son and daughter-in-law became irritated with the mess. “We must do something about Grandfather,” said the son. “I’ve had enough of his spilled milk, noisy eating, and food on the floor.” So the husband and wife set a small table in the corner. There Grandfather ate alone while the rest of the family enjoyed dinner.
Since Grandfather had broken a dish or two, his food was served in a wooden bowl. When the family glanced in Grandfather’s direction, sometimes he had a tear in his eye as he sat alone. Still, the only words the couple had for him were sharp admonitions when he dropped a fork or spilled food.
The four-year-old watched it all in silence. One evening before supper, the father noticed his son playing with wood scraps on the floor. He asked the child sweetly, “What are you making?” Just as sweetly, the boy responded, “Oh, I am making a little bowl for you and Mama to eat your food in when I grow up.” The four-year-old smiled and went back to work.
The words so struck the parents that they were speechless. Then tears started to stream down their cheeks. Though no word was spoken, both knew what must be done. That evening the husband took Grandfather’s hand and gently led him back to the family table. For the remainder of his days he ate every meal with the family. And for some reason, neither husband nor wife seemed to care any longer when a fork was dropped, milk spilled, or the tablecloth soiled.
Children are remarkably perceptive. Their eyes ever observe, their ears ever listen, and their minds ever process the messages they absorb.