Teaching teens by being a good example

Teach by example. It’s what parents try to do, and when that doesn’t work we hope our children find good role models elsewhere to emulate.

Some children admire celebrities from afar. In my generation it was Carole King, Martin Luther King and Elvis, ‘the King’. Today it’s Angelina Jolie and Sidney Crosby. Celebrities of all stripes inspire us when we follow their struggles and admire their successes.

But celebrities are often flawed (Elvis being a case in point), so they do not necessarily make the best role models. In the fan-celebrity relationship, interest usually travels in only one direction, so there is no opportunity for mentorship.

The very best role models are probably the real people with whom children have regular contact. They might find something to admire in a coach, a teacher, a godparent or even a friend. Teens need regular personal contact with an interested adult – someone who might even act as a mentor. It can make all the difference in a teen’s life to find someone from whom they will accept feedback and advice.

If we can keep the communication going, parents can sometimes be the ones to fulfill the mentor role. But that’s not always possible, as teens tend to seek inspiration elsewhere as they begin to craft an identity outside the parental sphere.

If you’re in that situation, do not be discouraged. You can still be an excellent example of the human being you want your children to become. Your children will store up the images in the back of their minds to draw on when they grow up.

Aspiring to be a good example is what most parents do naturally. We try to do right by our children not only so that we can fulfill our responsibilities towards them but also so that they see and internalize the habits and frames of mind that you want them to embrace as adults. Everything we do, from drinking in moderation (if we drink) to keeping a clean house or picking ourselves up after adversity strikes, provides an example of “the norm” for our children. By paying our bills on time, being polite to strangers and honouring our parents, we teach them how to live right. We are all imperfect creatures, of course, so we can only hope that our children will forgive our bad examples and pay attention to the good.

Providing a good example doesn’t necessarily show immediate results. Say you’re a dad and you spend every Sunday afternoon doing laundry. That doesn’t mean your teenager will leap at the chance to do the same thing. Getting kids to do their chores usually calls for a more direct approach – a good example cannot replace active parenting. In the long run, though, a child who grows up observing a grown man doing laundry will likely become an adult who doesn’t see laundry as women’s work.

Consider my own mother. She is a mother of four who went to university part-time when her babies were young. She got her degree and became a writer and a lover of books. Well, I didn’t emulate her at first (to put it mildly). But guess what: A few decades later, I’m a university grad, an avid reader and a writer! My father excelled in life because of his strong work ethic, which he applied both at work and at home. I don’t claim to be the superlative craftsman that my father is, but I do have his work ethic. (Now if only I had a little more talent and a little more time…).

Being the mother of a daughter who has come out the other side of the teenage years, I can attest to the long-term payoff of being a role model for your children.

Consider makeup. I’m not big on makeup, occasionally putting on a bit of eyeliner but generally eschewing the whole thing on the grounds that using makeup is just falling into the trap of a constructed ideal of beauty.

Did my teenage daughter follow my example? Oh, no, not by a long shot. As her younger sister puts it, my eldest daughter spent her high school years disguised as a raccoon. Over the past few years, though, things have changed.  Not only does she not wear makeup, she has rejected the status quo, consumerism and social expectations, instead embracing environmentalism, activism and a desire to improve society. The seeds of that character began long ago, in part by observing her mother’s imperfect but sincere example in small ways – rejecting makeup, speaking my mind about injustice, recycling religiously, that sort of thing. Parenting by example works.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying children should become copies of their parents (my own children would run screaming from the room if they thought it was a possibility – I’m too much of a homebody for their taste). Children have to find their own way, their own selves.

Take, for example, my extracurricular activity, dance. I attend classes where I try to learn the art of dance and keep fit at the same time. When my daughters saw me on stage the other day, they were proud of me. Neither of them takes formal dance classes now, but each pursues dance in some form. My youngest takes zumba. My eldest takes part in improv freestyle dance in west Toronto. Each to their own. It feels like example worked beautifully.

Margaret Hoogeveen is a local writer, editor, and mother of two school-aged daughters. She can be reached at mhoogeveen@sympatico.ca

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