The mother unwrapped the straw, poked it into the little box, and handed the drink to her toddler as they walked out of the grocery store. The sliver of straw paper slipped from the mother’s hand. I doubt that she even noticed it.
Rolling my grocery cart back to its stable, I looked around to see how many carts were randomly parked, willy-nilly throughout the lot, nowhere near the stable. Who leaves her cart to roll into the next parked car?
Since my greatest interest and life’s work centers on parents and kids, the world is my lab. I notice random acts, relationships, and interactions wherever I go. Observing, noticing, gathering data, storing information, wondering. That’s me. Today at the grocery store I couldn’t help but think about where and how children learn to do the right thing, to make the right choices. Of course, “right” means different things to different people, but I’m thinking of generally accepted right. The answer is kind of complicated, but not really.
To do the right thing, children have to do the wrong thing. Sounds crazy, but it’s true. Much of growing up is trial and error, testing limits and boundaries. Do it wrong, experience the consequence, then do it right the next time. At least you hope it works that way. That’s certainly one of the ways kids figure out what is the right thing to do.
However, even without actively teaching your children, they learn from you because they copy you. Think about the things that you automatically do because that’s the way you’ve always done it. There is the great old tale of the mother who is preparing her Thanksgiving turkey with her adult daughter. The daughter asks, “Mom, why do you always cut off the end of turkey before you put it in the roaster?” The mother who has no answer, knowing only that she cut it because her mother had always done so, calls her own mother. “Mom,” she asks, “Why do we always cut off the end of the turkey before putting it in the roaster?” The grandmother replies, “So it will fit in my roaster.”
Over and over I remind parents that your kids are watching you all the time. It’s about how you live your life every day. If you ALWAYS hang up the clothes you tried on before you leave the store dressing room, the habit will become your child’s too. If you ALWAYS put you trash in the wastebasket, your child will do the same. If grocery shopping ALWAYS ends by returning your cart to the stable, not doing so won’t be a choice. Behaviors, right and wrong, become automatic when they are habitual. And so it will be for your absorbent child. Doing the right thing has a good chance of becoming ingrained in him, whether or not you are there watching.
Next week starts the Jewish High Holidays, the time of reflection: What has been in the year that has passed, and what will be going forward? Whether you observe the Jewish holidays or not, the fall is a good time for everyone to reboot. Are you a person who does the right thing when no one is looking? If your answer is yes, then it’s likely you’re teaching your child to do the same.