Most of us can raise our children in a safe and loving environment without feeling pressure to conform to dangerous societal customs.
Unfortunately, that's not true for everyone. For centuries mothers have subjected their children to torturous rituals such as Chinese foot binding and Peruvian head flattening under the premise of giving their children a better life. Even today some African and middle eastern cultures promote female circumcision or in the case of the Pa Dong community, elongating the neck rendering it practically useless. These customs are not only physically harmful but could lead children to believe they are not okay the way they are.
We may be free from these extreme and obvious assaults, yet many of us still inadvertently teach the next generation values that undermine their sense of self.
I include myself in this cycle. One day I was getting dressed when my daughter, then two years old, stepped on the bathroom scale, let out an exasperated moan, whipped off her diaper and then said, "that's better." For a second it was funny because she was clearly mimicking my morning scale ritual. However, I quickly realized the terrible message I was sending her.
I wanted to teach her to love herself from the inside out, but my actions demonstrated a different message potentially negating my carefully chosen words.
If actions truly speak louder than words it's crucial to adjust our behavior to reflect our values. It may be easier, after a long day, to use the television or computer to occupy our children rather than to actively participate in family activities. However, do we really want the exhaustion of daily life to lull us into habits that send the wrong message? Do we really want the media to teach our children morals and values?
It's hard to make changes, even small ones. But it's worth the effort.
To start sending the messages you truly intend, consider the following:
- If you want to teach your children family values, leave work at work, turn off the television and computer, and spend time together. A nightly family dinner is bonding and creates unity.
- If you want your children to value healthy living, toss out the bag of chips, get off the sofa, and take a walk together. You'll demonstrate health conscious behavior while spending quality time with your family.
- If you'd like your children to learn about helping others, volunteer as a family at the local soup kitchen. Take action to teach your children the value of community service and the personal satisfaction they get from it.
- If you value education and would like your child to feel the same, read books together, take an interest in your child's homework, quiz him or her for an upcoming test, or get involved in school activities. Your involvement sends a strong message that learning is a priority and can be enjoyable.
- If you'd like your children to turn to you in times of difficulty, then learn to listen. Be open to having the hard conversations, not just the easy ones. Getting defensive or blaming will alienate your children. That would be a shame because you can be their greatest supporter.
- If you want your children to feel good about themselves, stop complaining about yourself. Focusing on your weight, your looks, or aging prioritizes those things in your children's minds. Focus on and talk about what truly is important to you sending a clear message of your priorities. (See I am not my face.)
Stop and ask yourself if your actions speak the right message to your children. Determine if the messages you'd like to send are actually the ones you are sending. Come up with small adjustments in your behavior that could have a huge positive impact. Change can be hard. But, motivate yourself by remembering who you are. You are the role model for the next generation and therefore your actions matter. How you live your life matters and will dictate what the next generation learns from you.