Talk is cheap when you’re a role model

In May, I wrote about why it’s important to talk to your children about drinking and drug use before they hit their tweens. I still agree with what I wrote then. However, today I received a comment on that post asking whether talking was really enough. It’s a great question and came at the perfect time. (And yes, I do believe in serendipity.) Because I’ve been pondering that myself. Not just with drinking and drug use either. With many of the behaviors and issues that we’re so concerned about – pornography and civility being two that have been burning up the fiber optics in the past few weeks.

My quick answer to Glow is this, no, talking isn’t enough. And I didn’t go far enough in my post, for which I apologize and thank you for the catch. Because talk is cheap, really. Words matter, yes. They really, really do. But what matters even more is behavior. Modeling. Walking the walk, not just talking the talk. Not telling your kids “do as I say, not as I do” as you race for your evening cocktail as a “reward” for surviving the day. Not hoping that your kids don’t learn about sex from XXX porn sites while your husband trolls for hours on those same sites. Expecting your daughter to love her body while you stand in front of the mirror each day complaining that you’re fat. Being surprised when your child bullies another kid when you bully every service worker you come into contact with.

The big elephant in the room, of course, is WHY adults have so many problems with these things. I expect kids to struggle with all this stuff. They’re kids. But fellow grown ups, why do we struggle so? There are a lot of reasons I’m sure, but the big one I come up with – at least in my own life – is selfishness. Pure and simple. I should be able to do X, by God. Why not? I’m an adult, I’ve paid my dues, I DESERVE a little fun, or some slack, or whatever. But here’s the clincher. You don’t deserve diddly. And when you signed up to be a parent, you signed up to be a grown up in a very different way. Not just the, don’t do X because it’ll land you in jail constraint. Nope. You signed up to be a ROLE MODEL. Yep. There it is.

When I was a kid, we invariably had some project where we’d have to write about our hero (now, we’d add shero). I always came back to my mom. Was she perfect? Nope. Not even close. She was flawed, but she didn’t try to hide it. Instead, like all great leaders she helped me understand that some of our most profound lessons lie in our failures. When she made a mistake, she admitted it. And tried to do better. She was kind, civil, and modeled the behavior she wanted me to emulate. In short, she wasn’t a hypocrite.

As a parent of a youngish child, I’ve learned the hard way that she’s studying me like some kind of alien anthropologist on a scientific expedition. I see my behavior, mannerisms, and hear my voice, every day. Some of it I like; some of it makes me cringe. It reminds me that I have to think consciously about my behavior, choices, and interactions in a way that I wouldn’t, admittedly, if I wasn’t a parent. And is it exhausting? You bet. Does it piss me off at times? Yep. But it’s there and it wasn’t in the small print of the parental contract.

Returning full circle, my new piece of advice for anyone trying to educate their kids about drugs and alcohol would be the following. Look consciously, seriously, and honestly at your own behavior. Drink responsibly and then discuss what you’re doing and why. Do it often. (The talking, not necessarily the drinking.) Obviously, drugs are always a no-no and if you have a problem, get help. Not only for yourself, but your children who think you’re the most important thing on the planet. If you want respectful, empathetic children, model the behavior. Grow a spine and talk to your kids – honestly, often, and at age-appropriate levels – about sexuality.

Like any great teacher, you’ll learn something too from the process. And share those lessons with the most important student(s) you’ll ever have. Walk the walk AND talk the talk. My motto to my daughter is “if you wouldn’t want your child to do X then you shouldn’t either” is a great starting point. It opens the door to talking, considering consequences, and contemplating our own willingness to learn from our failures. It requires courage, self-denial (at times), and a sense of humor. But it’s worth it.

don't just talk about itKarla J. Cunningham, Ph.D., is a mom whose alter ego is a violence and gender expert. Karla has worked in academics, government (law enforcement and intelligence), and at RAND. She writes frequently on her blog, toughlovehardtruths, and continues to explore the many dimensions of violence and risk for professional and mass audiences.

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