Our habits are the most powerful lessons we give our children
I’m a mother of 2 boys. That’s Sebastien is on the left (now 25 yo), and Dominick on the right (now 23 yo). I may be the parent, but they taught me a thing or two over the years.
As parents, we do our best to guide our kids. We offer advice, shield them from danger, nurture curiosity, encourage them to always try their best try teach them everything we know. When Sebastien was a few months old, I was at a routine checkup with the pediatrician. During the exam, I was making small talk to help Sebastien feel comfortable, hoping he’d feel more calm if I sounded calm. I jokingly said something about the challenges of a toddler and how I was not looking forward the “terrible 2s.” The pediatrician was a great clinician, but not the warmest person. Instead of responding with humor, she went straight to solutions by sharing a few book recommendations, one of which was 1-2-3 Magic by Thomas W. Phelan, Phd. I decided to give it a try.
I'm Not My Mother
As a new mom, I knew I didn’t want to be like my parents. Don’t get me wrong – they loved me, but we were not very close. Both of my parents worked – my father sold life insurance and my mother was a dietician. Both worked long and unusual hours, so we didn’t have much time to spend together as a family. Most of the lessons I learned were in the form of punishment. If I did something well, it went unnoticed. If I did something wrong, I was disciplined. I grew up in the 70s and 80s, so that was the norm. Remember the term “latchkey kid”? Well, that was me.
A latchkey kid is a child who returns to an empty home after school, or is often left at home with no supervision, because their parent is/are away at work (Wikipedia)
I appreciated my independence and was a good kid at heart. I am a rule follower, so I didn’t get into trouble very often. But I often wished for a closer connection with my parents. I would’ve loved to feel comfortable asking them questions, getting their advice and sharing some of the thoughts and feelings that were constantly swirling around in my head.
I wanted more of connection with my kids than I had with my parents.
After Sebastien was born, I felt like every new parent: like I was lost and driving without a compass, a map, or any sense of direction. My initial reactions to his behavior seemed to be random, but I quickly realized that I was replicating the behaviors of my parents. I was responding to him the way my parents responded to me. My parents meant well and only wanted the best for me, but as I thought about it more and more, I realized I wanted to be different. To do that, I’d need to start from scratch. I needed to think about who I wanted to be as a parent, then be intentional in what I did and said. It completely changed my perspective of the role of a parent – I was a sculptor not a teacher.
Imagine a sculptor standing in her studio, before her is a solid block of wood. Before she starts carving, she needs to have a vision of what she wants to create. It doesn’t need to be specific – she can work on the details as she makes progress. But she has to at least have a big picture idea – Will it be tall? Will it be wide? Will it be curved or maybe hollow? Without a starting vision, she’ll just be hacking away at the wood without a purpose. Once she starts carving and cuts away a section of the wood, she can’t put it back. Sure, she could glue sections of carved-off wood back onto the piece, but it wouldn’t be the same.
I began to look at parenting the same way. My role as a parent was the same as that sculptor. I needed to have a vision of the man I was raising. His words, actions and deeds would be the result of my ‘carving’ work over the next 17+ years. To be clear, it wasn’t about shaping him into what I thought he should be. My job was to encourage him to be who he already was. Sebastien may have only been a few months old at the time, but he was already showing me his unique qualities, skills and attributes that made him special. My job was to pay attention to those cues, then support, nurture and encourage him to enhance them, to grow into the man he was to become.
It stopped being about me telling him what to do, and started being about me teaching him the how, why and when to do.
1-2-3 Really Is Magic
Here’s a surprise: kids don’t do what you say, they do what you do (sarcasm intended). If I wanted my kids to know the how or the why, I couldn’t simply explain or show. I had to do. I had to live the lessons I wanted my kids to learn. Take, for example, teaching my boys to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. As it would turn out, I didn’t consistently or regularly say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ myself. How could I expect them to do something I wasn’t doing? I could remind them until I was blue in the face, but they’d only be reacting to my instruction every time. If my intention was for my kids to say ‘please’ when asking for something and ‘thank you’ to express appreciation or gratitude, then they had to internalize it. I had to be the living example.
“Start by changing your thinking about children. It may sound a little strange at first, but…think of yourself as a wild animal trainer. The trainer is patient and gentle, but also persistent.” (1-2-3- Magic)
1-2-3 Magic offers a simple model that frames everything as behaviors you either want to stop or start, then follow clear but simple tactics in response to both. Applying this model to ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, I identified the times I wanted them to say each, then developed a simple but clear tactic for responding.
Please: When they asked for something, I would simply wait for them to say ‘please’ before I’d response. I wouldn’t remind them by saying something like “Now what do you say?” (as I’d heard so many times when I was a kid). Instead, I’d acknowledge the question but otherwise do nothing. Let’s say they wanted a drink and said something like “Mama, can I have some water?” My response would be something like “wow, it would be great to have some water” then do nothing. When they asked again, I’d keep responding in a similar way. This went on until they finally remembered to added ‘please’ to the question. To which, I would say something like “well, when you ask like that, I’d be happy to get you some water.”
Thank You: When they asked for something (and remembered to say ‘please’), I would go through the motions of starting to give it to them. I’d get it (say, it was a toy that was out of reach) and start to hand it over, but I wouldn’t let go until they said ‘thank you’. I didn’t say anything (like “Now what do you say?”) to prompt them. I’d simply continue holding the toy. It was awkward, because we’d both be holding the toy – them, wondering what was happening; me, just waiting patiently, almost absentmindedly. When they finally remembered to say ‘thank you’ I would immediately release the toy and go about my day as if nothing had happened. At first, it felt like every hand-off was a micro tug-of-war. But they quickly learned that I’d release whatever it was they wanted with a simple ‘thank you’.
This was more than teaching my kids when to say what. It was about changing the way I spoke and behaved, so that they had an example to follow. The techniques changed as they got older, but my intention never wavered. I had to continually remind myself that I was a sculptor striving to carve a beautiful human being. And, to do that, I had to be mindful of my words, actions and behaviors. Over time, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ became habits – for them and for me. To this day, we all still effortlessly and consistently say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ without giving it any thought.