This afternoon, I sat down to an episode of The West Wing with my 11-year-old, my historian/writer with an interest in politics who took to the show after watching a short clip during the election cycle. It’s odd fare for a preteen, but I’m considering it educational. As I generally do, I brought my phone with me to the couch while he searched Amazon Prime for our next episode.
“Put it down!” he emphatically requested.
I turned the phone over onto the couch next to me, but that was not sufficient.
“Down there,” he said, pointing at the floor, just out of reach.
I mentioned something about waiting for his dad to text about pick-up time tonight, left it by my side, and pointed out the popcorn on the end table. The phone stayed face down on the couch, but his point was made.
While “do as I say, not as I do” is fine to say, it’s not really the best in parenting methodology. We are models of adult behavior for our children. What we do matters far more to our offspring than what we say. Personally, this disappoints me. My behavior is less than ideal far too many times, and I realize that I say one thing and model another, constantly aware that my actions speak louder than my words. And while my younger son is still phone-free and my phone-wielding son shows restraint with his, I can’t think that my attachment is likely the healthiest behavior either child could observe.
My too-regular responses to texts and checks on my Scrabble games are just two of the types of distracted behavior that serve as poor models for my kids. When working online, I tend to keep one eye out for email and another out on Scrabble or Facebook, not because I’m waiting for anything important but simply because my own ability to focus on one thing at a time is becoming challenged. I dispense advice to my older: Keep only your work on the screen. Close Facebook. Don’t read with windows open on the computer. He has a fair amount of the inattentive type of ADD and is easily distracted. I have no native ADD and am, perhaps, even more distracted. And yet I say one thing and do quite the opposite, with predictable results — he keeps screens open and flounders to finish tasks while I also accomplish less than I could if I minimized electronic distractions.
My modeling of mealtime is similarly poor. We’ve always been a meals-at-the-table-together kind of family. That worked well when dinner found us all at the table at the same time and the boys woke at dawn, making these natural family times. But with classes in all directions at all hours and three differing interpretations at what constitutes morning (and thus breakfast time, which influences lunch time), this meal bonding time has become less secure. And with online classes running over meals and hurried people with work and homework, eating at the computer became a new norm. Sticky keyboards aside, this practice also leads to meals consumed without thought and appreciation. The part of me that embraces at least the idea of intentionality and mindfulness shudders at this new trend of ours. Periodically, I’ll make a demand to return eating to the table. And for a while, we do so. But when the kids aren’t there, it’s easy to take my meal to the computer (lentil soup tonight), and when my older is busy with homework or Minecraft, he doesn’t want to remove himself from his lair and ascend to the kitchen.
Reading is another modeling opportunity gone bad. Now, I read, but much of the reading I do is while at my weekly allergy appointments, in the parking lot during my younger’s piano lessons, in bed before sleeping, in bed before waking, and at other points where no one is around to see it. So while I’m doing what I say, I’m not doing it visibly. My younger is quick to read without being asked, although coaxing him to read new material takes work. My older, who read prolifically when younger, hears the Siren’s song of the computer more loudly than the whisper of a good book or even an edifying magazine. So in addition to making reading a book previously unread number one on the summer list of tasks for the day, I’m making more time to read in front of my offspring. Given I’m three weeks from my recertification exam as a PA, that’s mostly medical journals and books, but it is reading they can see me doing. (To my defense, moms who sit down to read, write, talk on the phone, think, or sleep are seen as infinitely available to appreciate witticisms, field complaints, and receive requests that require leaving one’s chair. My public reading time diminished as a result of some sort of conditioning gone wrong.)
I model other bad stuff, too. On occasion, I’ve been known to yell for a child rather than walk to find him, despite telling my own to do the opposite. I even sometimes yell at a child (gasp!), and my mouth is not the font of always-genteel language that is was when they were smaller. My younger son loves to call me on all of this and more, having appointed himself the Master of Civility and Manners. Well, of Mom’s civility and manners. He feels free to follow his id while experimenting with the milder end of foul language and innuendo, behavior somewhat due to age but also a product of a mom with a loosening tongue. According to him, Mom, it seems, should be all superego, restrained, calm, and utterly consistent. I suppose in theory I agree, but that’s just not the mom the universe brought him.
This is not a cry for perfection from parents. We are human, despite what our children may say. We have our foibles and failings, and our ideals for our children often rest in the hopes that our children will have different ones – somehow better ones — themselves. Somewhere in the first third of this post, I closed the split screen, with Scrabble on the left and this post on the right, switched to full screen for this document, so the email wouldn’t show, and set to doing one thing at a time. There is no one around aside from a rather silent foster cat on my lap to know about my focus, and she’s unlikely to tell. But tonight I’m modeling behavior for myself, reminding myself that at one point, I could attend to my writing, my work, my meals without other stimuli. I’m trying to do as I say, to do as I want to be, to do as I want my children to do. And tomorrow, when the boys return, I’ll try that again.