Steve is a great guy, don’t get me wrong. He’s generous to a fault, a loyal friend. The worst thing anybody could say about him is that he tends to see the world in black-and-white. His father before him was the same way. You were either “a good guy” or “a horse’s ass.” There has been no middle ground for generations. If you’re on Steve’s good side, he will do anything for you. If he feels you’re dishonest, forget it.
Recently Steve’s middle daughter was graduated from college with a degree in art. Her senior project was, by any objective standard, magnificent. Colors, typeface, margins–every detail on every page was perfect. Impressed and proud, Steve complimented his daughter. “I knew you had a good eye,” he began, “but this is an extraordinary piece of work. Where did you learn how to do all this?”
“Have you ever done a science project with you?” she replied.
We give our children the gifts we have to impart. As long as the children are open to our input, we can teach them everything we have to impart: SCUBA diving, carpentry, baking, design, bike riding, a love of science: the possibilities are unlimited. If you know how to build a fire without matches, you can give your daughter a survival skill. If you know the quadratic formula, you can share your understanding. If your kids respect you and want to be like you, all your good habits will be transferred to them. Without your even noticing. If, on the other hand, your kids do not think you are an appropriate model, they will head in the other direction.
“Don’t just do something, stand there!” is the motto of one of my favorite schools in New Hampshire. “Don’t do things, BE things” is one of the many helpful mottos of my Families Anonymous (think Al-Anon) group. We kid ourselves when we think that our kids hear what we say. What they do is absorb who we are.
I have only two bit of sententious advice for how to help your kids want to internalize your values: stop telling them stuff. If you want them to be sober, give us your stash of pot. Don’t talk about it, just throw it out. “Do as I say, not as I do” never works. Secondly, if you want to give your kids every chance to be successful students, allow them the opportunity to do so. Kids can make good decisions about how often to play violent video games as well as a person who has jumped off a thirty story building can determine when he wants to stop careening toward the sidewalk. Few kids would choose a healthy meal rather than chips and ice cream. Few kids will read books when “Shoot, Blood, Kill” is ubiquitous. A kid can’t say, “just one more level” if there are no violent video games in the house to begin with. Thomas Jefferson was paraphrasing John Philpot Curran when he said, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” I am paraphrasing Steve’s dad when I say, “don’t be a horse’s ass.” Do what’s right for your kids. They will perceive what is best in you and model both their science fair projects and their lives around that exemplar.