The Power of Example

This column isn’t a response to a question, because I didn’t receive any questions short enough or of general enough interest to turn into a column.

This year my 25-year-old son came over to help prepare Christmas dinner. I was working on the main course and he was baking, cleaning up his dishes and utensils as he went. He turned to me and said “Mum, thank you for teaching me to clean up the dishes while I cook.” That made my Christmas! All the rest was trivial, though it was fun giving each other cows and camels and portable toilets from the Oxfam website rather than actual wrapped gifts to support the consumer economy.

When did I teach him that? I don’t consciously recall ever telling my son to clean up the dishes while cooking. I taught him, simply, by example. That’s what I do when I cook. I do it because I can’t stand the mess, and I don’t like to sit down to a meal for half an hour and then spend two hours cleaning up afterwards. It’s just the way I do things and he has learned this habit from me.

What made my Christmas, of course, was the fact that he said “Thank you.” And I realized that he has turned into a fine young man, responsible and caring with the bonus of being neat and tidy, even though he wasn’t as a child.

Example is the very best way we can teach our kids how to live. Nagging doesn’t work because it creates resistance and opposition. Lecturing teaches them to tune out. Instruction helps at the very start, when a child doesn’t know how to do something, but it’s useless for developing habits. Punishment creates resentment and a determination not to give in or a broken spirit.

But example works. The example of telling the truth. The example of considering others’ feelings. The example of setting your own boundaries and not letting others take advantage of you. The example of cleaning up after yourself. The example of facing responsibilities and getting them done on time. Think of all the habits you’d like your kids to develop, and then look at yourself. Are you doing these things? Then your kids will learn them. You don’t have to lecture or nag or punish; just live the way you want your kids to live. And sooner or later it will pay off.

Kids follow our examples in bad habits as well as good. If we go through their stuff without asking permission, we shouldn’t be surprised if they steal from us. If we swear, we shouldn’t be surprised at their colourful language. If we are rude or have temper outbursts, we shouldn’t be surprised when our kids don’t grow out of these habits. I haven’t always been the best example for my kids. But in the areas where I have, I am actually seeing the results, 20 years later! That’s exciting.