“All of this talk of modeling always feels like so much pressure!” a parent recently shared with me.
“What do you mean?” I responded.
“I just feel like the knowledge that my kids are watching and listening all the time means that I really need to have things together. Which… I definitely don’t feel like I do most days. My mom was really anxious, I am anxious, and I know I am passing some down to my kids even though I am trying not to.”
“I hear you,” I replied. “To be clear though I don’t think that modeling perfection is a realistic goal for any of us – whether it’s about anxiety or the thousand other things we are all trying to figure out as we go. I am comforted by the fact that talking about our process and modeling imperfection also provides a really important template for kids.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Well, it’s not that we don’t want to try to model healthy behaviors and habits. But I think kids learn a lot when we externalize our process around the things we are working on as well.”
“Ooh, I like that! Keep talking.” She added.
We both laughed as our conversation went on, each of us no doubt thinking about the mix of things – in all their beautiful and messy glory – we are consciously and unconsciously passing down to our kids.
Model the process, not just the behaviors.
This wasn’t the first conversation I’ve had where parents express guilt or worry about what examples they are setting for their kids. Whether it’s about digital habits, anxiety, communication patterns, body image, or other issues, each of us has places where there is a lot of distance between what we want to teach our kids and what we are working on ourselves. Parenting is a constant process of asking, “What do we want to hold on to?” and “What do we want to let go of?”
Of course accepting our imperfections and challenges doesn’t mean that we throw up our hands and say, “Oh well! They will just have to unlearn this later!” Indeed, our actions and behaviors do shape our kids’ behaviors and values. We should take them seriously. And that’s exactly why we should talk about them.
When we feel a little wobbly or uncertain in our own skills, it is easy to slip into moves that just reinforce our challenges:
→ Performing perfection. “I’ve got it all effortlessly figured out, let me tell you how to do everything.”
→ Defensive posturing. “Well, if the kids wouldn’t behave this way then I wouldn’t be like this.”
→ Avoiding and enforcing a “no talk” rule. “What challenges? I don’t see any challenges. Let’s move on.”
Depending on the issue, each of these moves may take more or less of an emotional toll on everyone in the family. But, over time and no matter the scale, they rob kids of the opportunity to see the work and the process behind our actions and our growth. They rob kids of the opportunity to see you.
In contrast, externalizing patterns, role modeling the process, and working together as a family to celebrate or to do something different can be powerful. Modeling that we are works-in-progress gives our kids permission to be the same.
Demystify the why and how of how we show up in the world.
To be clear, this isn’t about asking kids to “fix” or manage grown-up behaviors. It isn’t a substitute for genuine efforts on our part to make needed change or an excuse for poor behavior. For example, if we are trying to change a pattern of yelling at our kids when we are angry, we need to couple family discussions with genuine work on learning new tools to manage our anger and frustration. This might include working with a therapist or seeking out a support group for that purpose.
But talking about our challenges in developmentally appropriate ways can be a gift to our kids as they work to better understand and grow their own feelings, choices, and skills.
This means that we absolutely should talk about the how and why of the healthy behaviors we are proud of. We can also name why we are working to change other things and how we are doing that work.
Role modeling the process helps us build a positive family identity and a story that helps kids make sense of the ups and downs. For example, we want to avoid implicitly creating a family story that says “we are a family who yells.”
Instead, we want to explicitly create a story that says “we are a family who works to communicate in healthy ways even when it is hard.”
What does this look or sound like?
To uproot particularly persistent or toxic patterns we will likely need outside support to help us create more healthy ways of talking and acting as a family. But even for smaller issues, we can model that we are all working to grow skills that better reflect who we are and how we want to show up in the world.
Here are some examples:
“You know that we are constantly asking you to put down your phone… I want you to know that I am aware that I have been using my phone a lot more lately. I have noticed that when things get more stressful at work I scroll through my phone more. Do you notice that pattern too? I am working to change that because it takes away from what I care about most – time with our family. One of the things I am going to do is make sure my phone is off and away during dinner. What else do you think might help?”
“I have lived with anxiety my whole life. It’s my job as your parent to make sure that I build a healthy toolkit for my worry and anxiety which is why I see my therapist and talk to my doctor. I’ve learned, though, that I might be passing some of this worry on to you even when I don’t mean to. I’ve learned that my worry sometimes shows up as wanting to control everything. Have you noticed that? How does that feel to you? How do you notice your worry showing up? When worry takes over in our family I want to be able to name it, talk about it, and try something different. Okay?”
“When I was a kid no one ever talked to me about relationships, puberty, or sexuality. Sometimes I default to silence about these things because that’s what I was raised with. I am working to do something different with you because I think you deserve information about how your body will change and grow and how to build healthy relationships with yourself and others. I know it might feel awkward for both of us and that’s normal. But I care about you enough to keep trying and keep talking.”
“I learned growing up that there was a “right way” to do everything. I spent a lot of time and energy trying to do everything the right way. I know now that there are lots of ways to do things! But sometimes those old lessons sneak up on me and I have strong reactions. I am going to do my best to notice when this happens. This morning, part of my brain is telling me that there is a “right way” to frost this birthday cake. But this is not a time when it matters so let’s not let the “right way regulator” boss us around! You go for it. This is a situation where we can make a mess and then clean it up.”
“I am so proud that we are a family who apologizes. We make mistakes and sometimes we make each other angry. But I notice that we each find a way to come back together and make it right. It isn’t always easy, but we make it happen. I notice that you need a little bit of time alone reading or coloring when you are angry before taking next steps. Is that right? I am glad you are learning that about yourself. I need the same thing, but instead of coloring I listen to music.”
We are all growing.
Here’s the good news – parenting, like being a human, is not a pass or fail enterprise. It is not a fixed ability that either leads to great kids or doesn’t. It is something that we work at, day in and day out. Some days we are our best selves. Other days not so much. When we know better, we do better and then we work to mend it.
When we let our kids in on these essential truths we give them something more powerful than a prepackaged model – we give them permission to be vulnerable, to struggle, to courageously step back and look at their own patterns, and to turn towards the people they love as they grow grow grow.