Standing in the ice cream parlor, my 4-year old son decided to throw down in front of half the town. The source of his frustration? He didn’t want ice cream. He wanted a “beer” to celebrate the first day of school. “Why do I need to get ice cream, mama? I want a beer!” The standing cooler full of unique bottles of glass sodas was calling to him. The cold glass filled with delicious liquid was the best way that he could think of to celebrate a special occasion. We laughed a little at how we had inadvertently taught him that celebrations need a cold brewski, and let him choose an IBC root beer instead of an ice cream cone. Pick your battles, right mamas? This led to the question, though, what we have taught our kids by accident? What do we impart onto them inadvertently? From the hysterical to the serious, our kids learn arguably more from us indirectly than when we actually sit down to teach them.
The most common response among moms polled was that they inadvertently taught their children to swear. Despite teaching our children that certain words are off-limits, when they hear us spout them off with passion, they learn these words make an impact. For a child that wants to be the center of attention, there is nothing more fun than learning that a certain word or phrase will have all eyes on you. “Oh yeah,” said one 4-year-old with a preternatural hold on self-deprecation, “that’s normal.”
Our kids observe our attitudes about life, too. Mother of 5, Iesha Thomas, 39, of Pittsburgh, demonstrated to her babies to never give up, on anything. They’ve seen their mom fight through many circumstances and hold her ground. This has created strong-willed children, and yet has often backfired. “Now no matter how many times I say something won’t fit and for them to take their ass to bed, they wake up early to try to prove me wrong. ‘See mom, I can fit those boots from two years ago.’” She prays their stubbornness will be put to good use some day... against someone other than her.
Through keen observation, our children are also learning about our roles as mothers. Many moms shared that though they have a job, a degree, a passion in life — their children defined their roles by the delineation of household chores.
Traci Walker, 51, of Ashland, Oregon, recalls a time when her son asked if laundry was her hobby. Despite her full life with a variety of interests and skills, he observed and generalized what he saw her spend the most time on as her “hobby.”
Likewise, in Ohio, Brittany Wylie’s daughter was stunned to learn that she gets exactly half her DNA from mom and half from dad. “She was like whoa… but you do all the dinners and homework and baths and bedtimes.” Her mind was blown that distribution of chores equated in her daughter’s mind to distribution of genes.
Most parents don’t think their kids are paying attention, but they are. They are tiny sponges soaking up all of the information around them.
Pittsburgher Lateshya Ellis, 44, is mom to two girls. Her girls have learned about how to be a good hostess through observing their mom. While she didn’t set out to make them mini wine connoisseurs, her girls can tell her what wine is best paired with what food. “For example, a shiraz really tastes great with a petit filet, whereas a pinot grigio goes well with scallops. I drink whatever I’m feeling, but my kids know I’d never drink a dessert wine without dessert…” she trails off.
Thirty-eight-year-old Christine Wolf says her daughter Katie had a similar observation about her tippling ways — Wolf is famous among her friends for making apple pie moonshine, which she gifts in mason jars. At the checkout of the Wal-mart in her Monaca, Pennsylvania, town one day, the cashier, seeing the pallets of mason jars and envisioning jellies and jams, said to Katie, “I bet your mom fills those with something good for you.” The child, without missing a beat, responded, “My mom fills those with alcohol. I can’t have any because I am only 4-and-a-half!”
Wolf slinked out of the store stifling her laughter and embarrassment.
Our kids learn more serious things, also. My 6 year-old Eli observed and asked if all refugees had to live in a certain area of the city, or if they were “allowed” to leave.
“Is it like jail? Do they come here for safety and then we lock them in just that part of the city?” His young mind was discerning segregation and the income gap, but he didn’t have the words for why all of the Somali members of his soccer team live in just one housing complex.
Kids pick up on societal cues and stratification very easily, as Lanae Lumsden of Avalon, Pennsylvania, found at a cello class. “The class was about half white kids and half kids of color… and while waiting to talk to the teacher, all of the kids were running around this empty room in the church basement. It was getting kind of out of hand, and an adult walked in. As soon as the door opened, all the Black kids immediately ran to grab a seat, waiting quietly. The white kids continued to run around.”
Lanae explains that Black kids learn that they will be judged harsher than their peers, and so learn to conform to expected behaviors at an earlier age. They knew they were going to get in trouble, if not by their parents then by the teacher, and sat themselves down. Little minds are working hard to understand and observe their world, and glean just as much from what we say as what we don’t say.
As moms, we spend endless time educating our kids. Choosing books, shows, and toys that back up our values and ideals. It’s clear though, by the questions our kids ask and the observations they make, that they are learning just as much inadvertently as they are overtly.
Julie Stacey, who has a Master's of Education, has spent a decade studying and observing how children learn. “This is all related to Albert Bandura’s theory of social learning, and is a pretty deep topic. Most parents don’t think their kids are paying attention, but they are. They are tiny sponges soaking up all of the information around them, and deciding if they deem it important enough to pay attention to.”
Bandura’s theory is all about attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation, she explains. So kids are paying attention to the world around them — us — and their little brains decide what to retain. They try out the behavior, such as swearing. Their motivation to do it again is all based on how we react. If they get a big reaction, the behavior is retained. Stacey recommends with any observed/learned behavior a parent wants to extinguish, to react simply and firmly.
“That is something that adults can do, and you can decide when you are older what you will choose. But that is not something for kids to do.” And then move on.
Whether this makes us cautious of what we say, or gives us a chuckle as we see our personalities rubbing off our our kids, or encourages us to live out the values we matter, it is clear that little ears are always listening, and little eyes are always watching us.
After a very frustrating first birth experience, this Deaf mother wanted a change. Will the help of two Deaf doulas give the quality communication and birth experience this mom wants and deserves? Watch Episode Four of Romper's Doula Diaries, Season Two, below, and visit Bustle Digital Group's YouTube page for more episodes.