We teach our kids lots of things. We teach them how to read and how to share. We teach them to do chores and to work hard. We teach them how to make good decisions and how to drive. We teach them what it means to be good citizens.
But we aren’t exclusively educators, mentors and tutors. We’re students, too. And our children are pretty incredible teachers.
“[M]y kids teach me much more than I teach them,” said Emily Fonnesbeck, RD, a mom of four and a registered dietitian in southern Utah specializing in disordered eating, eating disorders and body image concerns. She’s learned so much about herself, about her strengths and weaknesses, while raising her kids.
For instance, she’s not very patient, and can easily lose her cool if she’s not careful. But she’s also a hard worker who embraces challenges. She’s also very organized and keeps up with her kids and their many activities. And she can improve on the weaknesses and pass on her positive traits—as her kids watch her use them.
Because that’s another critical lesson Fonnesbeck has learned: It doesn’t really matter what she says; what matters is what she does. “[T]he thing they will always remember is my example.”
In fact, that’s how she knows which traits she needs to work on: “I see what [my kids] need to improve on and realize that I’ve got to be a better example of those things. If I’m impatient with them or one of their siblings, they will be impatient with themselves and each other.”
Before Sarah Argenal became a mom, she thought she had to be the expert, teaching her kids everything they needed to know about life. “I came into our relationship with a ‘superior’ status, and I took on the responsibilities and arrogance that can come along with that type of power,” said Argenal, MA, CPC, who writes, speaks, consults and leads interactive trainings on work/life balance, intentional living, and connected family relationships for busy professionals at www.workingparentresource.com.
But just a few weeks after the birth of her first son, she realized that she needed to surrender her agenda and support him instead. She realized she needed to let her son lead, and she needed to follow. So she started listening more, and letting his struggles, needs and desires spark his growth and her’s.
Today, Argenal focuses on providing her sons with the space to explore who they are. Because they’re not property to shape and mold, she said. Rather, they’re souls who’ve entrusted her with holding their hand on their journey—a powerful privilege.
Practically, Argenal does this by never comparing her kids to other kids. Because doing so disrespects her sons’ experiences. Each son is “his own person, and he’s going to have a unique blend of strengths and abilities than every other child out there.” Argenal focuses on celebrating exactly where each child is at, instead of making them feel like they’re “ahead” or “behind” someone else. “Doing that just sets [them] up for a lifetime of anxiety about how [they] measure up to others, and that’s not something I want [them] to worry about.”
Argenal also makes sure to be honest with them (in an age-appropriate way). For instance, her five-year-old son asks lots of questions about life, everything from “Where do babies come from?” to “Why is that man sleeping on the sidewalk?” to “Why is that little girl bald?” and it’s tempting for Argenal to try to protect him.
“I don’t hide things from him. I don’t try to polish reality. Sometimes life is hard, and I want my son to be able to handle that. Together we talk about the best way to manage his emotions about what he’s learning. Most importantly, he knows I’ll always be straight with him whenever he comes to me.”
My daughter will be two years old this fall. Like Fonnesbeck, I, too, find my weaknesses emphasized in flashing lights: my natural tendency to fixate on chores instead of fun, my tendency to get overwhelmed easily, my thin patience, my rigidity, my compulsion to control.
Children are unpredictable. They nap today, but not tomorrow. They get sick and miss a week of school. They’re ecstatic one minute, and have a meltdown the next. Today they love blueberries. Tomorrow you find them all over the house. Kids are constantly changing—sometimes it feels like every second. This includes their needs, wants, preferences and abilities. So everything.
When you prefer to live and breathe certainty and schedules, the unpredictably can be tough, no matter how small it might be. I’m learning to go with the flow and embrace uncertainty (or at least not flee from it). I’m learning to pivot, and let some things go. I’m learning to focus on the beautiful, kind-hearted miracle standing right before me, to sing and dance with her, sometimes after the dishes are done, sometimes before.
When talking about myself, I’m trying to be kinder (and it’s hard), because I don’t want my daughter to learn that you talk to yourself with cruelty and contempt. I want her to be comfortable with respecting, honoring and loving herself.
And, as Fonnesbeck said, I’m learning I have a lot to learn. And I’m learning I mess up a lot, too.
“Having kids is just like holding up a mirror on yourself all day,” Fonnesbeck said. “It’s like putting yourself under a microscope.” Which is why being a parent teaches us lessons we might’ve not learned any other way, she said.
“At the end of the day, my kids don’t need me to be perfect, though, I just hope they see me always learning from mistakes and recommitting to being better.”
“The most important life lessons have come from my kids,” said Argenal. “The more open I am to giving them space to show me who they are, the more I learn. Life as a mom is very different than I expected, but it’s also an adventure. It’s messy and exhausting and surprising. But it’s the biggest privilege of my life to walk alongside my kids and offer whatever love and support I can… the rest is up to them.”