Raising children is like living in a house of mirrors ... but it's the best kind of challenge.
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After I told my 3-year old to clean up the dirty plate she’d left on the table, she moved a strand of blond hair off her face with grubby fingers, put her hands on her hips, and said, “Well, ack-shaully, I’m not the one who left it there.”
I told her I would appreciate if she would clean it up anyway.
I turned to her older sister and reminded her to brush her teeth before bed and clean up the toothpaste that had been splattered all over the mirror. She responded, “Well, actually, my sister did that.”
I firmly requested that she clean it up regardless.
I was becoming annoyed. These children had a rejoinder for everything.
At some point, every single one of my children started doing it, and it made my blood boil. These kids, I thought, need to stop pedantically clarifying everything, and just nod their heads and agree with me. Instead, they were choosing to debate every point and literally every nuance. They couldn’t let anything go without pointing out that they were somehow in the right.
When the “Well, actually …” habit first appeared in our house, I thought it was maybe the worst development to every strike our little domestic arrangement. Every time I heard it, I cringed. I would snap at the children to cut it out. I explained how annoying and off-putting it was. They didn’t stop saying it. It had somehow become hard-wired into them. Finally, it occurred to me how this mysterious verbal malady had infected our family.
The children were imitating me.
It turns out, I say those words all the time. I didn’t realize it, but over the course of years I had picked up the verbal habit of lightly contradicting or slightly correcting whatever was said to me. I suppose it was a way to assert my control of the situation, subtly allude to my (imaginary) superiority. It was a signal to others that I was the one in the know.
That is how I learned my personality is annoying. Even to me. My children, like the little imitation machines they are, revealed this with ruthless efficiency. God bless them.
This is why “Well, actually …” is the worst thing any of my children have ever said to me. It revealed a great big glaring personality flaw that I’d managed to shove to the back of my consciousness. I couldn’t ignore it, though, when my own flesh and blood were throwing it in my face daily. I needed to change.
I asked my wife what other little bothersome habits of mine the children have inherited and she just laughed. There are too many to list, she said.
The parental challenge
Since then, I’ve become far more observant. I’m like an eagle scouring the land for signs of movement. When the kids get under my skin, I wonder if they’re reflecting a flaw I’ve unwittingly taught them. When they snap at each other, say horrifically arrogant things, or declare with sigh, “I don’t have time for this right now,” I recognize my own worst behaviors.
This recognition not only helps me become a better father by helping me be more patient and understanding of their bad behavior; it has personally challenged me to regular self-examinations. I don’t want to pass on bad habits. I want my kids to become better than I am — in every way. The best tool I have as a parent to assist them is to actually become a better person myself, to take up the challenge of modifying long-standing bad habits, particularly when they’re reflected in the behavior of my children.
As a father, I have been stunned by how my children have become instruments of grace. Not only do they hold up a mirror and prompt me to consider well the image that I behold, but they also far outshine me in any positive characteristics I’ve passed on to them. There are times they behave with such sensitivity, generosity, and kindness that I’m mystified how they became so wonderful.
These are the moments that parents live for, when I’m drawn out of my own head-space and muse that I want to be just like these little ones when I finally grow up.