It is early. 5:30 a.m. Dark o’clock. Bleary-eyed and slouched over my coffee, I am seated in a restaurant near my gate, contemplating breakfast. You are seated at the bar.
While I idly wonder why you are sitting there instead of sitting in a comfy booth, I hear the waitress tell you that she is forbidden to serve alcohol until 6 a.m. You look at your watches and say you’ll wait.
Then a young girl—about 9 or 10—appears and slides onto the stool between the two of you. From the way you interact, I guess that she is your daughter.
I watch her twirl on the barstool. She jumps up, crosses the aisle, and enters a newsstand. In a few minutes, she returns with a purchase and reclaims her perch. You check your watches.
I watch your daughter put her head down on the bar for a few moments. Chattering, she twirls on her stool again.
At 5:50, the server holds up ten fingers. At 5:55, she holds up one hand. At 6:00, she ceremoniously pops the tops of two large beers and pours one of you a shot. Your daughter twirls.
And then I wonder, irritably—and, OK, somewhat judgmentally—“What is going on here? What are you doing here at a bar at 6:00 a.m. with your impressionable young daughter at your side?” My next thought, in an effort to be more charitable, is “What happened that made you want to drink at a time and in a way that would likely raise a lot of eyebrows? Did you come from a different time zone, where our day is night? Did your airline provide such a harrowing travel experience that you are desperate to steady your nerves? Are you grieving a terrible loss, or overwhelmed by some kind of personal catastrophe?”
Adults, of course, are free to do as they choose. But you are here with your young daughter, and I worry for her. Has it crossed your mind that you are quite possibly influencing her future drinking behavior?
For better or worse, many life lessons are “caught” rather than taught. Kids have a way of learning the things we never get around to talking about with them—and they learn from watching us. From the time they are toddlers, our children are observing and imitating us. When they are older and see and call out adult hypocrisy, the message “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t cut it. The truth is that the best way to teach children any healthy behavior is to model it ourselves.
To the parents at the bar in the Minneapolis airport, you have an opportunity. With 10% of eighth-graders reporting that they drank in the last month, experts say ages 8–11 is the crucial time for influencing kids’ decisions about alcohol. Don’t miss this window. Kids your daughter’s age tend to like facts and learning about how things work. Take advantage of this interest and talk about alcohol and its effects on the body.
You could also talk about the effects of stress on the body, and provide your daughter with several different suggestions for dealing with grief or sorrow or for managing anxiety. It’s too easy for her to find examples of adults self-medicating or numbing emotional pain with alcohol. Avoid letting her hear you glorify or joke about drunken behavior—which may also send a mixed message.
You mean everything to that little cutie on the stool between you. At her age, your opinion still matters most to her. Help her develop healthy self-esteem by emphasizing her strengths and positively reinforcing her healthy choices.
To the parents at the bar in the Minneapolis airport, I do not doubt for an instant that you really love your kid. I know firsthand how hard it can be to be your best self when your kids are watching, which is pretty much always. But here’s the nudge I feel compelled to give you today: Look into the mirror hanging over that bar and try to see what I see—a beautiful young girl, seemingly happy, making a memory with you, watching you, and looking for clues on how to best live her adult life, which, by the way, will begin right around the next corner. You are her best-loved, most influential teachers. Teach her well.
Christine French Cully is Chief Purpose Officer and Editor in Chief at Highlights for Children. As Chief Purpose Officer, Cully’s focus is on growing awareness and implementation of the Highlights purpose, core beliefs, and values—to help actualize the organization’s vision for a world where all children can become people who can change the world for the better....
Her: “I cannot believe you’re still making your kids’ lunches. Let them make their own sandwiches!”
Him: “They don’t know how.”
Her: “Oh, please. Just show them. Slap a piece of bread on the cutting board and slather some peanut butter on it.”
Him: “But if I do that, they’ll probably just skip lunch. Get off my back. I like helping them out.”
Sound familiar? This recent exchange between two longtime friends is typical of the animated debates that ensue when considering how to teach our kids responsibility. In your own household, it may play out as a debate over whether your son is now old enough to get himself up and out of bed in the morning. Or it may play out between your ears as you deliberate whether to give your daughter an assist (and a certain A) on her homework or insist that she tackle it solo (and risk a less-than-stellar outcome).
As parents, we’re all crystal clear that we need to instill a sense of responsibility in our children. But it’s not always transparent when the time has come to push responsibility our kids’ way. Which responsibility? How much responsibility? Is it OK to turn over some age-appropriate tasks to our kids, but keep others? Where is the line between acceptable pampering (hey, we like making our kids feel special) and holding on too long to satisfy our need to feel needed?
If you were privy to the conversation above, as I was, you might tilt toward the woman when you learn the kids in question are both teenagers. Then again, you might favor the man’s position once you understand that he is a loving father whose parenting time has been sorely curtailed by divorce. When his kids visit every other week, he feels a keen need to do anything and everything to make up for all the anythings and everythings he is missing. It makes him feel good to make those sandwiches.
Moreover, he’s not wrong to worry that if he pushes sandwich detail to his children’s side of the counter, they may opt to forego lunch. Unintended consequences are a given when parents relinquish responsibility to their kids. But until you’re up against it, no matter how small the task, there’s no knowing who will have the tougher stomach for those consequences—your kids or you.
Say yours is the child who, newly tasked with sandwich honors, leaves for school without a lunch bag in hand. Forgetfulness? Calculated disobedience? Either way, your kid will spend the afternoon listening to his stomach growl. Whether those hunger pangs spur him to make a sandwich the next morning or he again goes out the door lunchless, he’ll survive.
The harder question is, will you? If you shift homework responsibility to your child and she hands in an unfinished worksheet, can you tolerate the “incomplete”? If you hand your child the leash and the dog doesn’t get walked, can you tolerate the puddle on the rug? If your child sleeps through his alarm, can you tolerate his being tardy for school?
The truth is, it requires a tough stomach to instill a sense of responsibility in our children. Any honest parent will tell you that. But here’s another truth that gets shared less often: when we don’t ease up on the reins and allow for the consequences of fledgling attempts at responsible behavior, our kids risk internalizing a different lesson entirely. This one has to do with dependence, entitlement and, if it goes on too long, learned helplessness.
One thing is certain: our kids will find unlearning that lesson a whole lot harder than learning how to make a sandwich, no matter how compelling our reasons for delaying responsibility might be.
Jill Smolowe is the author of An Empty Lap: One Couple’s Journey to Parenthood and co-editor of A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents