One winter when our kids were little, we were given a free week in a condo in the mountains. There was no snow on the roads when we headed up, but as we got to the last bit, we passed a sign that said “Chains Required.” Being young and dumb, we figured they didn’t mean us, so we kept going. Big mistake.
We were partway up the relatively steep, snow-covered incline when we started to slide backward down the mountain. Now, this road was not on a cliff side — there were trees to break our fall, were we to slide off, but the situation was definitely not optimal. So, I did what any normal person with an irrational fear of falling off the side of a mountain would do. I started screaming.
It did not take long until the kids in the back seats started to cry. They were taking their cues from me. My husband had to point that out to me, and then asked if I could shift my response. “We’re OK,” he said. “We’re going to be fine.” We were, but it was still terrifying. However, I could see that I was making a bad situation worse, so I began to sing children’s songs. I closed my eyes and sang “Row, row, row your boat,” and “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam” and more while my husband slowly backed down off the snow-covered road.
It worked! The kids calmed down and we made it down the mountain, backward. The next day, with chains on our car, we went back up and had a fun week.
That was not the first time and definitely not the last time I was reminded that kids learn what they see modeled. You know the saying — do what I say, not what I do. But kids will do what you do.
Let me share another example: When we had a houseful of kids at home, everybody had to pitch in and do chores, both inside and out. Do you want to guess how well it went when I told the kids to get up early on Saturday morning and go do their chores (while I slept in). Yeah. Zero chores were done. But, when I got up before them, got dressed and got working, then went to get them up and going, lo and behold, they were outside working with me. Imagine.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the example adults are setting — and what our kids are learning.
I personally believe that our kids are a lot more resilient than we give them credit for — and even if they aren’t, resilience can be taught through our actions. 2020 and into 2021 has been hard. I’m not suggesting we ignore that or pretend everything is rosy. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Part of building resilience is being able to acknowledge what is happening, differentiating between controllable and uncontrollable circumstances, and then looking for solutions. It doesn’t help to ask “Why” questions, generally. It can be super helpful to ask “What now?” or “What options do I have?” We’ve seen that play out over the course of this once-in-a-century pandemic. Virus: not controllable. Our response: controllable.
One thing I’ve learned from life, politics and advocating for people I love, is that life’s choices are rarely binary. They almost never show up in either-or scenarios. Either we put on a cap and gown and march down an aisle inside our school or everything is ruined. Either we get married and have a gigantic reception or we don’t get married at all, because everything is ruined. Learning how to pivot is part of life, whether we plan on it or not.
The reality is there are almost always lots and lots of options. When option A is no longer possible, well, there are 25 more letters in the alphabet. As I already mentioned, I think our kids are already pretty resilient, but as adults in their lives, we can either help foster that, or we can make it harder. We can mourn with them when plans have to change, but we can also help them find new solutions. Graduation in an outdoor stadium? Sure. Commencement speaker via Zoom? OK. Drive-by wedding reception? Why not?
When life disappoints us, are we modeling hand-wringing and wallowing? Are we teaching “learned helplessness” by our example? Do we concentrate so long on what we missed out on that we can’t find joy in the present? Do we model personal responsibility and accountability or do we always find someone else to blame? Do the kids in our lives see us stomping around, swearing, and spewing hatred towards those who vote differently than we do? People who look different than we do? Do we say people are wrong, or are liars, if they share life experiences that are different from our own? Are we modeling distrust? Contempt? Sexism? Racism?
In 1960, Ruby Bridges, then 6, went to the all-white William Frantz Elementary school. U.S. marshals escorted her there on the first day and for months after. Why? Because for months, white parents protested, jeering, taunting, screaming at little Ruby. What do you suppose they modeled for their children?
Could we model a better way? Could we model empathy, caring and compassion? Love? The ability to apologize? The ability to disagree without contempt? The willingness to learn? To admit when we’ve made mistakes and work to repair hurts we have caused? Can we model flexible expectations? Healthy ways of dealing with “failure” (learning opportunities)? Do we model gratitude?
Jenkin Lloyd Jones, a Unitarian minister who died more than 100 years ago, wrote: “Anyone who imagines that bliss is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he’s been robbed. The fact is that most putts don’t drop, most beef is tough, most children grow up to just be people, most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration, most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. Life is like an old time rail journey … delays … sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling burst of speed.”
The trick, he said, is thanking the Lord for letting you have the ride.
What are you modeling for the children in your life?
Holly Richardson is the editor of Utah Policy Daily and a Deseret News columnist.