What lessons are your kids picking up by watching your day-to-day behavior?
Educators like to tell the story of a social worker who asked a five-year-old to explain the colors of the traffic signal.
"Green is for go," the child answered, "red is for stop, and yellow is for speed up."
"Yellow is for speed up?" asked the social worker.
The child nodded vigorously. "Whenever the light turns yellow, my daddy speeds up!"
Eighty percent of education takes place at home. Whatever children may learn through homework, lectures, and academic awards, their parents' models of behavior will shape them far more profoundly in adulthood.
Most of us understand intuitively that children raised in an atmosphere of crime will likely grow into criminals, that children exposed to violence will likely grow up as aggressors. But we conveniently overlook and dismiss the more subtle behaviors our own children learn from us, behaviors that, with a small measure of introspection and self-discipline, we could correct in our children by correcting them in ourselves.
What lessons do we teach our children about the importance of education if we don't get them to school on time and neglect to supervise their homework, if we schedule vacations when school is in session and let them miss classes for birthdays and major league baseball games?
What lessons do we teach our children about responsibility if we never require them to clean up after themselves and never require them to work for their pocket money, even if we can afford to indulge them?
What lessons do we teach our children about accountability if we excuse their poor schoolwork or poor behavior by blaming classmates, teachers, and principals, or if we refuse to impose consequences for our children's misconduct by withholding privileges?
What lessons do we teach our children about self-respect if we never set standards for them and praise them whether or not they have done anything worthy of praise, if we are so eager to program every moment of their lives to be fun that we eliminate all challenge?
What lessons do we teach our children about civility if we shout obscenities at other drivers on the highway, if we malign our neighbors and co-workers at the dinner table, if we answer our cell phones in the middle of conversations or allow our pagers to sound off during the symphony?
What lessons do we teach our children about family commitment if our only time with them is spent staring into the television?
What lessons do we teach our children about moderation if we spend twice as much on a Lexus when really a Camry would do, if the cost of our new suit or dress or stereo system could support an entire family for a month?
What lessons do we teach our children about compassion if they hear us ardently discussing our stock portfolios but only hear about our donations to charity as impositions or tax deductions?
What lessons do we teach our children about family commitment if we work late nights at the office, if our only time with them is spent staring into the television?
What lessons do we teach our children about devotion if we regularly skip synagogue for golf or tennis, or, if we do attend, we arrive late, chatter through services, and sleep through the sermon?
And, on the other hand, consider the lessons that we can teach our children when we talk with them about school and supervise their homework, when we plan age-appropriate activities around their schedules, when we turn off the TV and the internet to read a book or go for a walk, when we volunteer for school trips or soup kitchens or visiting the sick, when we speak softly and listen attentively, when we limit the luxuries that clutter our lives so that we can focus better on the things that really matter.
Of course, none of us is perfect; we all have our human failings. But we could all be doing better than we are. By resolving that we will not be slaves to habit, to greed, or to ego, by committing ourselves to raise up the standard of discipline, refinement, and integrity that our duty as parents demands of us, then we will see the changes we have made in our children by having made them in ourselves.