The best thing we can do for our children is to give them the example of striving always to improve ourselves.
Parenting itself is a veritable school of fortitude: the 200 things you do every day before 9am when there are small children in the house, the sleep deprivation a nursing mum endures, midnight vigil for a sick child, the second job to make the school fees… every family has its own success stories. One mum was describing how she raised six children of her own, and a seventh adopted, all while mail sorting on night shift for sixteen years! Impressive. John Paul II’s memories of his own father, ‘He never had to be tough on me because he was so tough on himself’, remind us how parental heroism can be in reach of mums and dads, and of the immeasurable good that results from parental example.
Yet our own lack of fortitude can also frustrate the natural process. We can schedule our weekly golf game so it impedes family relationships; we can allow the list of repairs around the house to become a standing joke; we can justify habitual crankiness with children even though we all know in our heart, as one parent reflected, ‘The more you are grumpy, the more he forgets, but the more I praise him, the more he remembers.’ Consider this true story: ‘I was treating a lady, and she broke into tears after telling me it was her fortieth birthday coming up. “I have been married for 15 years but I cannot talk to my husband. He watches television each night. I need to talk but his attitude is ‘What is there to talk about?’”’ There is a real danger that we put comfortable limits on how we put ourselves out. Author Jim Stenson insists that the best thing we can do for children is to give them the example of striving always to improve ourselves.
Sometimes also, parents develop a default setting, behaving as they saw their own parents behave, for better and also for worse. One mother was reflecting how her husband’s anger with their baby on occasions seemed an eerie reflection of her father-in-law’s personality. Your children are likely to grow into adulthood uncannily like, perhaps uncomfortably like, you.
In a sense children do raise themselves; they model themselves constantly on those to whom they have the greatest exposure. Parents therefore need to manage the influence of friends and peer groups. We must manage the voices talking to our children when those voices are unhealthy. Young people will imitate anyone (and sometimes even anything) they spend time with, even virtually or in their imaginations. The bottom line is that we become like those we associate with.