Sometimes my 5-year-old son drops a shockingly bad word. Other times, he immediately resorts to screaming when he doesn't get his way. And then there are times when he says every word in a whiiiiiiiny tone. Of course, these occasions are wince-inducing because my son is so young and I'm trying to mold him into a well-behaved, socially responsible person. But they are even more painful for another reason: These annoying behaviors remind me of my own, and I'm not sure I'll ever get over it. Seeing your worst traits in your kids is the hardest thing.
People who use the phrase "curse like a sailor" have obviously never met me. (If they had, they'd know that the phrase curse like a mom would be much more like it.) Whenever I bump my knee, stub my toe, or drop anything, my automatic reaction since young adulthood has been to drop an "s"-bomb or maybe even an "f"-bomb. It's not like I plan to say a bad word, it's just the natural progression from the bump, stub, or drop. And though I've tried, muttering "Oh, fiddlesticks!" just doesn't have quite the same cleansing effect. I wish I had the self control to avoid cursing, because I feel it's a lazy and ugly way to express myself.
Then, there's my temper. I'm generally pretty rational. But when something really pisses me off, I feel myself get so burning mad right away that I'll lash out without considering the consequences. I lash out with my words like a weapon, looking to cut anyone who's dared make me mad as quickly and deeply as possible. Almost as soon as the words tumble out, I regret them because they're a product of my lack of self control. Often times, these words are ugly, hurtful, and maybe even not true. But when I'm angry, I say whatever's most hurtful.
Finally, there's my bad habit of whining. "Baaaaaaabe," I'll find myself saying to my husband. "I'm hoooottttttt and I don't wannnnnnaaaaa walk any further." I'm just the dramatic type, I guess. Blame it on being a former theater student. But I don't like that I sometimes can't seem to communicate without sounding like a toddler desperate for a cookie. Whining is not a good way to be taken seriously.
Before I had children of my own, I heard the warnings that kids are like sponges soaking everything around them up, but I didn't really believe it. That was, until I had a little sponge of my own. I tried to be careful about how I acted around my young son, and mostly I was careful to avoid foul language or losing my temper in front of him. Still, there were occasional slip-ups. Having a kid did nothing to eliminate all the objects in the world a toe can be stubbed on. I'd automatically say "damn it!" when I'd drop something, and my sweet-faced little boy would gleefully repeat me. Damn it, I'd think, I guess he heard me. Other times, I'd have adult conversations with my husband about my issues with his parents or about how I felt he was slacking on chores and my son would overhear and holler portions of these conversations back at us.
My son is very smart and sensitive with an incredible memory. He's always observed everything around him. When my mom babysat him as a 14 month old, she was stunned to hear him toddling around saying "goo gal, goo gal." She'd been off-handedly telling the dog to be a "good girl" all day and my son picked up on that. Even now, he absorbs emotions. When my husband and I are sad, he is too. If we're happy, so is he. If we argue within earshot of him, he finds something to yell about.
When his teachers ask me where he's learned some of his behaviors, I had to take a long and uncomfortable look at myself. No, he most likely didn't hear that word from me. But he could have, and that's the problem.
At preschool, he heard another child say the "f"-word once and brought that home like a piece of poop wrapped in gift wrap: a present we were horrified and disgusted to open. The real problem was, he never forgot it. He never forgets anything. He's picked up language from TV shows he hears in another room, or a radio commercial in the car. We learned too late how careful we have to be around him. This lesson became painfully clear when my son sang back to me "cut the bullshit" from the Macklemore hit "Downtown". We'd played the song several times in our house, dancing around together and thinking he wouldn't notice the few curse words.
My son is an emotional boy, and gets caught up in whatever he's feeling at the moment. If that's anger, watch out! Just try sending him to his room when he's in the throes of a temper tantrum over how many pieces of broccoli he has to eat at dinner before he can have dessert. And don't get me started on his whining.
I've heard my son use bad words I've said or played for him in music, and I've seen him lose his temper like I lose mine, and it's been shocking and incredibly eye-opening. It's also forced me to take a good, hard look at myself. What kind of example do I want to set for him? What kind of example am I setting for myself?
I've also struggled with bouts of anxiety throughout my life, especially during times of transition, and I see my son also having difficulties with change and acting out. Unfortunately, he's developed a reputation for acting out in elementary school, and it's not nearly as forgiving a place as preschool once was for him. No one helps you wipe your butt, or puts up with a bad word or a temper tantrum. When his teachers ask me where he's learned some of his behaviors, I had to take a long and uncomfortable look at myself. No, he most likely didn't hear that really bad word from me. But he could have and has heard other foul language from me before, and that's the problem.
The experience of seeing some of my worst and most difficult traits in my son has motivated me to recommit myself to setting a good example for him all the time, not just when its convenient, and not just when all is right and I haven't dropped anything and no one has pissed me off. I've had to come to terms with the idea that yes, our kids are always watching and listening to us, and what we say and do matters always. I've heard my son use bad words I've said or played for him in music, and I've seen him lose his temper like I lose mine, and it's been shocking and incredibly eye-opening. It's also forced me to take a good, hard look at myself. What kind of example do I want to set for him? What kind of example am I setting for myself? I'm not proud of the way I've acted, but asking myself these questions has definitely motivated me to make changes. I've started following my own advice to him, and reminding myself to take a deep breath and to think before I lash out verbally.
And improving my own behavior not only benefits me as a parent, but me as a person. When I'm in control of my emotions and behavior, I earn more respect, and I respect myself more, because I'm conducting myself in a mature and sensible way. I've already seen an improvement in my son's attitude by paying closer attention to my own. He's experiencing less outbursts, and will now often sulk for a couple of minutes instead of yelling when he doesn't get his way. When I don't behave badly myself, he doesn't have the excuse of, "but you did it, Mom."
I can tell my son to behave all I want, but showing him how to behave is what truly matters. And that's what I'm trying my best to do.