What to Do When You Can’t Set an Example

One of the ways you show your love for your child is by telling him things which are good for him. Like ‘eat healthy food’, ‘get enough exercise and sleep’, ‘plan your work so you can get things done on time’, ‘put your things away so you know where to find them when you need them’. There are so many things you say.

Does your child do as you say? If yes, you are one of the lucky few! 🙂 It may start out that way: he may do as you say; but inevitably, he will begin to do as you do. You may say anything (and you do!), but what do you DO?

At first, your child may not openly question you. He may not ask: ‘Why should I eat healthy if you’re eating junk all the time?’ But he will certainly think it. Keep telling him what he ‘should’ do, and he will begin to question the discrepancy between what you say and your behavior.

He has every right to ask: ‘Your closet is a mess. Who are you to tell me to keep mine clean, organized?’ (No, this is not a made-up scenario. I know a lady who is chronically incapable of keeping her closet organized. The rest of her home is spick and span. When I first met her, almost 20 years ago, I asked her how she kept such a neat home but such a cluttered closet. “It’s my husband,” she explained. “I’m a stay-at-home wife with no kids. When we were first married, he’d walk in from work every evening to find the house looking like a tornado had blown through it. Three months later, he gave me an ultimatum: the house had to be ship-shape or else… But the closet is mine, so I indulge myself there. Today, she is the mother of two teenagers. Her home is still a model of organization. Her closet is still a mess. “Call it self-expression!” she says. :-))

Your son questions your right to give him advice that you don’t implement in your life. You have no answer. You know you’re struggling with yourself. You know you are doing your best all the time – doing your best to be your best. In some areas, you are not as successful as you’d like to be; but that doesn’t mean you want him to go through the same pain you have lived through.

You don’t want him to be like you – hunting frantically for the wedding license or ring at home (that you KNOW you kept so carefully right here) when you were due at your own wedding half an hour ago.

And what about the big ones? The principle is the same, but if you have an addiction, and you are counseling your child not to smoke, or drink, or abuse substances – what then? You are in the trap – maybe keen to get out of it, or maybe not.

But for sure you don’t want to see your child in the trap. And you don’t know how to convince her. Because she has every right to question you (and she will) when you say, “Don’t!” Because you can’t set her an example. Because you are still with the habit or behavior you are advising her against. But you would give a lot to make sure she stays away from it.

How can you reach your child in such a situation?

As always, honesty is the best policy. Tell him how you started. Tell him your journey. Tell him the mistakes you made. Tell him how you’ve felt over the years about this habit or behavior. Tell him what happens in your mind and body. Tell him how you’ve tried to stop; what it is that keeps you stuck. Share the experience – all of it.

Of course, you need to be careful, and tailor it to your child’s age and temperament. But share. It is the only way she will even think about doing as you say and not as you do.

Maybe it was peer pressure. Maybe you wanted to look cool. Maybe your ‘friend’ introduced you to it. Maybe you were very stressed at a point in time, and began the habit or behavior to deal with that stress, but couldn’t get out of it. Maybe you come from a home where this is the norm. Whatever the story, share it.

Show her the horror.

I used to be fairly disorganized as a person, but one day, I hit rock bottom. I was at the airport, at the check-in counter to board an international flight with my 15-month old, and I discover my passport is missing. I almost dropped the baby I was holding in my arms. I had to make this flight – I had no options.

Heart pounding, mouth dry, hands clammy, stomach roiling, sweat all over my body in 20°C temperature, legs trembling, knees crumbling, mind numbed with horror, facing a questioning airline ground crew member, managing handbag and cabin baggage. And before I could take it in – you guessed it – my daughter started screaming and flailing her arms and legs. The tension in me got to her, I guess.

I’ll spare you the frantic phone calls to my husband and his cross-city scramble to get my passport to me.

Today, I manage the family finances, and am considered a model of how to file (and retrieve! :-)) all manner of papers and things, so there’s a happy ending to this story. But it was a long, painful journey – one I could complete only because I shared the pain with my daughter and enlisted her help. “Remind me. Nag me. Make sure I put things away.” She loved it! 🙂

The fact is that each of us is dealing with some issue about which our children can ask us how we can dole out advice to them when we are not able to get our act together.

Don’t let their questions stop you from giving them advice. Tell them – despite not being able to set an example. It takes courage to acknowledge you’re not doing as well as you could be, and your child will recognize (and applaud) it, if only you take that courage in your hands, and SHARE. And you DO have the courage – your love for your child gives you the courage.

Who knows, you might just overcome the issue with your child’s encouragement and support. Maybe he’ll be the one to set you an example. 🙂 At any rate, there’s a good chance he’ll take your advice.


15 Responses to What to Do When You Can’t Set an Example

  1. saheli ghosh September 15, 2011 at 10:18 am #

    Dear Vineeta, Nice to read your blogs for they are on issues/dilemmas which we face day to day. also shows how much you think on the issue of responsible parenting. Great going.

  2. Preeti Hans September 15, 2011 at 11:46 pm #

    Thought provoking post… i am learning a lot through your blog… your wonderful posts wud help me become a carefree parent when i become a parent!!

  3. monita September 16, 2011 at 7:46 pm #

    keep it going girl!!!!!!!!!! the blog is soo very hands on…..


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