Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. –James Baldwin
I believe in not sweating the small stuff, taking it easy, being the Buddha. However, when my then 14-month-old daughter Josephine shouted at the traffic in clear imitation of me, “Get out of the way car! Go drive in the trees!” it was made crushingly clear that I was far from living up to my own standards.
Nothing in life has made me more aware of the gap between my purported values and my behavior than having a child. In the effort to be a good parent, I've come to realize that it isn’t enough to simply believe; I had to behave as if I believed, because it's that behavior my child will come to imitate. You can try to pound beliefs into a child all you want, but unless they see those beliefs in practice, you’ve done nothing more than plant guilt bombs that will explode when your child inevitably imitates you.
This doesn’t mean that there is an imperative to behave perfectly all the time. Lord knows, I don’t. We’re humans. We lose our temper. We say cruel things. We break rules. We lose our patience. That’s simply part of the human condition. Never making mistakes isn’t realistic. And like it or not, our children are liable to imitate us by making mistakes similar to our own.
That’s why it’s vital that when our children see us falter, we also need to make sure they see what we do to correct the damage we’ve done or fix our failings. Ultimately, they will also imitate how well we accept the consequences of our behavior, our apologies, our amends, and our forgiveness.
After Josephine’s first foray into road rage, I tried biting my tongue, but it didn’t take. I told her I didn’t like myself when I got mad at other drivers, and asked her to remind me to “breathe” whenever she saw I was getting overheated. I installed a row of bouncing Buddha’s on my dashboard to remind me to be peaceful. As she got older, I tried self-mockery and exaggeration, following up my bursts of irritation by saying things I knew she would see through like, “I never make mistakes,” and “It’s hard being the only good driver.”
For the time being Josephine has accepted the invitation to make fun of me for my foible, answering with long suffering sighs of, “Yeah, right Dad,” and “You know, they can’t hear you.” I doubt I’ll ever be the world’s most serene driver, but with Josephine’s help, I’m getting better and quicker, at breathing, then laughing my way out of it.
Since “taking it easy” may always just be only an aspirational part of my belief system when it comes to driving -- one that I’m incapable of role modeling -- I hope I’m at least teaching her the power of seeing the fool in yourself. And that's something I hope she learns to imitate.