Parents try to teach their children what to do. Directly, you instruct them on the rules and expectations of how they should behave. And indirectly, they watch you and learn from watching what you do, how you act, and how you manage situations. In fact, they often learn more from watching how you live your life than how you tell them to live theirs.[i] As discussed in the posting Math Problems, your child is born with a certain behavioral profile. They are born with a program of ways of responding, behavioral tendencies, strengths, abilities, and preferences. This program responds to experiences; and your influence only represents a slice of their experiences. So much of what they learn takes place outside your domain.

As for the lessons you try to teach, parental logic tells us: I have lived. I have made the mistake that you are about to make. In fact, I still keep making that same stupid mistake because it has become a habit for me. I know the consequences and I wish I never started making that mistake. Never starting is easier than stopping after you’ve started. So I want to stop you from making the same mistakes I did.

However, the teen logic tells them: my parent is a hypocrite. They do it, but they try to tell me not to. Who are they to say not to… they can’t even stop themselves. Why should they be allowed to do that and I am not? That’s NOT FAIR!

The best depiction I ever saw of what happens when an adult talks to kids was the Charlie Brown cartoon specials by Charles Shultz.[ii] Whenever a grown-up talked… all the kids heard was “Wah wa wa, wah wa wa wah….” Oh, they could tell the gist of what the adult was saying, and tone of voice was pretty clear. But they weren’t listening too closely. This is how a lot of kids respond to parental lectures. However, the moment that a parent turns the canned speech off and goes back to being himself, kids pay much more attention.

Another good reference is the movie Parenthood (1989). At one point, Gil, played by Steve Martin has to rummage through the garbage cans behind a restaurant in order to try and find his son’s lost retainer. His son lost the retainer at the restaurant and started crying intensely. Gil is bemoaning how his son is so anxious and easily upset. In fact, Gil has a fit over it. After searching through the garbage for a few minutes, he gives up his search and vigorously and dramatically washes his hands. As he is scrubbing his hands he complains, “Why is he so high-strung? He’s like a… like a poodle. Everything’s blown out of proportion.” As he continues scrubbing vigorously, he says, “Where does he get this obsessive behavior?”

Mary Steenburgon plays his wife, Karen. As Gil flails about, anxious and upset, both about sifting through the garbage and his son’s emotional frailty, and his confusion as to where he gets that frailty, all Karen can say is “I wish I knew.” The audience, however, is pretty clear on where Gil’s son “gets it.” Later in the same scene, Gil reflects, “You know, when your kid is born, he can still be perfect. You haven’t made any mistakes yet. Then they grow up to be like….me.”

Children can reflect back our worst habits, traits, and emotional weak spots.[iii] Some of this is built into their temperament from day one, and they will have to learn to cope with that just as much as you have to cope with it yourself. This isn’t your fault. They are a reflection of you, through genetics and through living with you and watching how you deal with daily life. As was stated in the posting Math Problems, they inherited some of their profile of personal strengths and foibles from you. They were further influenced by their interactions with you.

If you get frustrated when you do a certain mistake, for example procrastinating, part of learning to avoid that mistake is training yourself to fight or crush the impulse to put things off, to almost ‘yell’ at yourself. You grow to hate and annihilate the part of you that is prone to procrastinating. It is perfectly natural that you would also get just as frustrated when your child does the same procrastinating behavior. You spent years honing an internal reaction to avoid acting on that impulse, and you feel responsible for teaching your child to do well. The natural result is that your reaction will come out when you see him doing that same hated behavior.

But your child is not you. He has his own learning path. Even though part of what you offer is the benefit of experience, he has an internal drive to learn for himself. There are times when he is not able to take your word for it. He needs to experience making that mistake, and the negative consequences that follow, often repeatedly, before he learns a different way of behaving. While he may reject what you have to say, you can still influence him by modeling for him. If your own actions contradict your speech, than your speeches won’t have nearly as much impact. If you want him to manage his temper or anxieties differently, think about how you manage yours, and how you respond to his. If you try to yell it out of him (i.e., yell at him to make him stop yelling), what kind of response does that usually provoke? If you are patient, and can tolerate his anxieties or temper, and can stay in that moment with him while he struggles without rushing him to ‘feel better,’ what does that teach him? You cannot yell at him or make him deal with frustration calmly. You can model, by how you handle being frustrated with him.

Yet, in the end that it is an impossible task to succeed at all the time. You are no more able to behave at your best ALL OF THE TIME than he is, or anybody else is for that matter. Accepting your own mistakes, and his, is one of the most challenging parts of parenting.

In my experience, a lot of the time a parent will yell at her child not only because of what he did, but because she is ashamed of her own behavior and seeing it reflected back through her child’s behavior. This is partly because the parent may feel guilty about having done the behavior in the first place, and partly because she may feel that her authority is now in question if she admits her own mistake. The fact is that every parent is imperfect. You can’t hide that from your kids. Not only do you have to live with your own mistakes, but you also have to live with seeing your child make similar ones. The silver lining is that no one will understand how frustrating having that problem is as well as you. You have been right where he is. So you are the person who will understand your child best in that moment. He has an ally that you may never have had in that moment. So instead of a moment of shame & frustration, there is also the potential for empathy. You can share that you too struggle with the same issue, and validate that it is not so simple to overcome.



[i] As in the section Math Problems, and its endnotes, this section raises the issue of nature vs. nurture. How much of what you do as a parent has any real impact on your child’s development? How much are they going to be who they going to be, regardless of what you do? According to the study by Moffit, both genetics and environment interact even in extreme profiles, such as Antisocial Personality Disorder. Moffitt, Terrie E. (2005). The New Look of Behavioral Genetics in Developmental Psychopathology: Gene-Environment Interplay in Antisocial Behaviors. Psychological Bulletin, 131(4), 533-554. Therefore one can assume that there is some interaction and room for influence on less extreme profiles of social behavior, self-control, and aggression.

[ii] Such as A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)


[iii] For example, one study found that the way that parents resolve their conflicts (by positive problem solving, by engaging in conflict, or by withdrawal) is related to how their adolescents deal with conflict. Van Doorn, Muriel, D.; Branje, Susan, J. T.; & Meeus, Wim H. J. (2007). Journal of Family Psychology 21(3), 426-434.


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