The other day I got behind the wheel of my husband’s car and panicked. The fuel tank was so low that the warning light had come on, and the needle was perilously close to empty.
“Relax,” my husband said. “You’ve got 28 miles before the gas runs out.”
I didn’t trust it. Ever since I started driving at age 16, I had been taught by my father never to let the gas gauge go under a quarter of a tank. It was wise advice that has kept me from being one of those roadside losers who run out of gas and have to call AAA or hoof it for miles to the nearest gas station. To this day, I make sure to fill the tank it gets close to the quarter mark.
The lessons our parents teach stick with us for the rest of our lives. I remember once shopping with my mom at a department store. She had been carrying a couple of pairs of pajamas in her arms, considering whether or not to buy them, and was no doubt distracted by having several children in tow. As she left the store and headed into the parking lot, she noticed she was still carrying the unpaid for merchandise. No sensors had gone off, and no security guard had hustled after her. But she turned right around and marched us all back into the store so that she could return the clothes. That simple action taught me never to take what wasn’t mine and to be honest and scrupulous in other areas of life.
Other things my parents taught me over the years were not to swear, not to fight (physically), to treat people with respect, write thank you notes, work hard, play fair, and take credit only for one’s own work. Most of these things they taught, not by words, but by example.
Our children are little sponges soaking up the atmosphere around them. They note what we do and say way more than we would like to think. For instance, when my oldest child was little, one of her first words started with “sh.” Clearly she heard me cursing under my breath frequently throughout the day and was simply mimicking me. Luckily, her baby voice wasn’t super clear, so no one but I knew what she was actually saying. This same child loved to hover around the edges of adult conversation as she grew up. I truly hope that what she heard from her dad and me was positive and life-affirming, not gossipy or negative. But I’m not kidding myself.
As kids get older, they tune out a lot of what their parents say. But they are still watching what we do. If our lives convey honesty, respect, compassion, and integrity, they will come to value those qualities in themselves. If we take care of our health, eat right, and exercise, so will they.
Of course, children are not clones. They will make mistakes and err in judgment just as we did when we were young. But if we are careful as parents to model lives of kindness and responsibility, the trajectory of our kids’ lives is likely to follow a similar path.
As Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sang, “Teach your children well.” When they become parents themselves, they will remember the lessons of their youth and carry them forward into the future.