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Parental example, whether for good or for bad, is undoubtedly the most powerful influence on a child's moral and social development.
If we are to succeed at all in bringing up our children in the way we want them to grow up, we have to be mindful of this day and night.
Let's say you are taking your family on an outing to the local zoo. As you enter the gates and take out your purse to pay for admission, you notice a sign that says children under six go in free.
"Ah!" you think to yourself. "My youngest child turned six a few weeks ago, but I'll tell them she's still five and save a few pennies. It's only a tiny untruth, nobody will know the difference and the zoo company will certainly not go bankrupt because of it."
But one of your older sons, who is no fool, overhears your exchange with the attendant at the counter and quizzes you about it as you all pass through the turnstiles.
"Don't worry about it, son," you tell him reassuringly. "Everybody does it."
Then a year later, you're shocked when this same son is caught cheating in a school exam, or helping himself to an apple in the market when he thought the stall owner was looking the other way. You angrily demand to know how he could dare to bring such shame upon the entire family.
"But Dad," he protests. "Everybody does it."
Here's a remarkable true story that shows this principle working in the opposite direction - and demonstrates just how far the effects of one single action can reach:
A woman went to the supermarket with her children. After checking out, she found she had paid too much. The checkout clerk refused to refund her the difference, so she approached the store manager and explained the mistake. The manager was too busy to pay much attention to the woman's problem. However, he reached into his cash drawer and handed the woman a couple of bank notes, just to keep her quiet!
On the way home, the woman realized that she now had the opposite problem - the manager had given her too much money! But it was already late, she was tired and the children were very restless, so she just continued the journey home.
That night, the woman could not sleep. She could not stop thinking about the money in her purse that did not belong to her. Every day she drove her children to school, but that morning she especially left early and on the way stopped at the supermarket. In front of the children, she explained to the manager that he had refunded her too much money in error the previous day.
The manager shrugged his shoulders and looked surprised that a customer had come all the way back just to return a couple of small coins, but replaced the extra money in his cash drawer.
Months later, one of the woman's children was sitting at his desk at school, watching his teacher return a batch of test papers to the class.
It had been a difficult test, and the lad was thrilled to learn that he had received an "A+" grade. The teacher praised him for his perfect score, and then began to review the correct answers with the class.
As the teacher read out the answers, the boy realised he had actually made a mistake in the test but the teacher had not noticed it. For a long time, he debated with himself whether to inform the teacher or not.
In the end, his conscience triumphed. After class, he approached the teacher and pointed out the grading error. The teacher was so impressed with the boy's honesty that he let him keep the "A+" grade all the same!
When the boy told his mother the story at home that evening, he confessed that a mighty battle had raged inside him after he had become aware of the teacher's error. His pride as the recipient of such a high grade was so strong that he had almost decided in favour of keeping quiet about the mistake.
But then he remembered how a few months earlier his mother had refused to rest until she had returned a few paltry coins that she felt did not belong to her. From that moment, he said, the battle ended and his mind was made up.
Most parents (and teachers) do understand to some extent that the most effective way to implant moral values and good habits in children is by personal example.
The problem is that we sometimes demand certain desirable behaviours from our children that we personally have not yet mastered, or do not practise for whatever reason. The youngsters are quick to pick up what they see as hypocrisy, and this may lead to unfortunate consequences.
We may tell our children to eat nutritious meals, while we try to survive on junk food. We may urge them to be polite at all times and to be careful to greet everyone they meet courteously, yet when we pass our neighbours in the street, we are in such a hurry that we do not as much as glance at them.
We may preach constantly about the value of money and the importance of not wasting a penny - yet on the slightest impulse we may buy useless little luxuries and trinkets that might have taken our fancy for the moment, only to discard them on the garbage heap a few weeks later.
We are, in the end, only human. Even when we have strong convictions on a certain matter, our conduct, in practice, will occasionally fall short of the ideals we aspire to. We see this happening in the best of us, and it should come as no surprise.
We may deeply believe that anger is a very bad character trait, and admonish our children every day to control their tempers. Yet, after a long and hard day of housework or at the office when our nerves are near breaking point, we fly into a rage immediately when our children do something that displeases us. And if we think about it enough, we will be able to come up with many more examples.
One thing, however, we have to know, internalise and constantly remind ourselves. The formative years of early childhood are always, by nature, the most impressionable ones in the lives of your offspring. The way we conduct ourselves in every situation makes an unmistakable subconscious impact on their minds. This impact is bound to remain with them for many, many years to come, whether they are consciously aware of it or not.
Among other things, this means that the smallest inconsistency in your behavior, irrespective of the circumstances, will not go unnoticed. Today, too many children view their parents and teachers as insincere, and eventually reject their moral authority.
Often when this happens, a youngster may delude himself into believing that he is adopting a superior set of moral values, but the end result is just the opposite. As a politician, he may work hard to improve the world, but as a businessman, he may succumb to all sorts of shady practices.
In short, he may have mastered the art of hypocrisy - or what he perceives as hypocrisy, even when it really isn't - that he learned at home!
What can you do to avoid this happening to your own children? In the light of what we have just discussed, you may well feel that working on your children is far easier than working on yourself. All the same, working on yourself is something you must make every effort to do. If you want to plant seeds of goodness, you must first prepare the ground.
There is only one way. Developing and refining your own character should take pride of place among your ongoing objectives. Self-improvement should be high up on your list of personal priorities and part of your daily schedule. Like working on your marriage relationship, this is a process that cannot be completed in a day, a month or a year. It needs to continue throughout your life.
Every evening, set aside a little time to reflect upon your actions during the day that has just passed and think about which areas of conduct need improving on. Even better, do this daily exercise together with your spouse.
Working as an effective team, you will be able to encourage and support each other. Together, it will be easier to come up with creative ideas to avoid repeating the same mistakes and bring about the changes you want.
Mom and Dad, Stop the Bad Behavior Now!
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