Every Fall we take our kids (of the human variety) to a delightful local farm where there are piglets, ducklings, kittens, chicks and kids (of the goatish variety). They love it.
Here’s how it is supposed to work: carefully seated on hay bales and with the assistance of an adult, kids who are 2 and older are allowed to snuggle with newborn kittens. Kids of 3 and older are allowed to hold kittens or chicks. Kids of 4 or older are allowed to hold ducklings.
However, here’s how it often does work: carefully seated on hay bales, kids who are 2 or who are 1 and whose parents think they are as tall as, as smart as or as responsible as a 2 year old, get left holding the kitten while Mommy backs away from the kid for the photo op. Ditto for chicks and the kids deemed as smart/tall/responsible as REAL 3 year olds. Ditto for ducklings and the kids deemed as smart/tall/responsible as REAL 4 year olds.
Apart from the fact that such behavior is unfair to the animals and unfair to other patrons who are waiting their turn, I write this because I deeply believe that breaking the rules for our kids is actually unfair to our kids.
Here’s why. As parents, we expend a great amount of energy trying to teach our children to do right. They say “No”, and we parrot “No thank you”. They say “Yes”, and we parrot “Yes please”. We parrot “listen to your teacher”. We parrot “don’t run in the street”. We parrot “don’t eat with your mouth full”. These, and a thousand other rules and instructions, are repeated because we hope to train our kids in the right direction: we want them to become good citizens, good people.
However, there is truth in all the cliche’s:
Behavior is more CAUGHT than TAUGHT.
PRACTICE what you PREACH.
ACTIONS speak louder than WORDS.
And so it worries me, that in a generation where we keep trying to TELL our children how to live, we are MODELING behavior which says “the rules only apply when they suit you.”
Our children may be young, but far from thinking “oh they are too young to notice”, we would do well to remember that they are being imprinted by observation. I still vividly remember being taken to the circus by my grandfather when I was in my first year of elementary school. As we stood in the queue for tickets, I pointed out to him that the tickets for little kids were half of the cost for kids of school-going age. “I could say I’m not in school yet, Oupa,” I offered. His reply was gentle but firm: “But you ARE in school, and so that’s what we’ll say.”
I was only 6, but the memory of that conversation came back to me years later when I was short-of-cash and riding the tube in London. The conductor asked how far I was traveling. I could have said I’d just got on. But I hadn’t. I had ridden much further, and so that was what I had to say.
Our children are watching us.
And so when the rules say “no food or drink in the play zone”, and we sneak in juice and crackers because we don’t want to buy snacks there – let’s not teach our kids that it’s okay to disrespect the rules if it is more convenient.
And when the rules say “no holding ducks until you’re 4”, and “only with an adult’s assistance” – let’s pass on the photo op and hold the duckling for our 3 year old so they can still pet it.
And when the rules say “no cellphone use while you’re driving”, let’s wait to check that text or let it go to voicemail (Aack! convicted!)
Because our children are watching us. And one day, they will have to tell the truth when it hurts. They will have to make a choice between forgoing an opportunity or lying to get it. They will have to write resumes. They will have to decide whether to take a lower grade and write the paper themselves or whether to plagiarize. They will have to pay their taxes. They will have to decide whether to be faithful to their friends and spouses.
One day, our children will be influential contributors to civil society – where justice and community are underpinned by that all-important concept of the rule of law. Democracy cannot exist without it: “the principle that all people and institutions are subject to and accountable to law that is fairly applied and enforced”.
Friends: it’s not about the duckling. It’s about teaching our kids that the rules apply to us. We are not above the law, even on minor issues like holding ducklings. We are being unfair to our kids if our actions teach our kids that rules exist for people, but especially OTHER people. As my sister astutely pointed out to me: “We are not ‘stuck in traffic’. We ARE traffic.”
Oh how I pray that, hapless and hypocritical as I sometimes can be, they when all is said and done they will have learned from us that they need to do what is right even when no-one is watching. Our futures depend on it.