Be the Adult You Want Your Child to Become

I love to read inspiring and perspective-altering quotes from wise people, particularly when the words are overlaid on an image of a mountain or a forest, but oftentimes the truth in those statements can be inconvenient. Recently, I read three such inconvenient quotes all on the same day, and none of them were coupled with an adventurous outdoor picture to soften the blow.

The first, from Richard Rohr: “If you talk too much or too loud, you are usually not an elder.”

The second, from Saint Francis of Assisi: “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.”

The third, from Joseph Chilton Pearce: “What we are teaches the child more than what we say, so we must be what we want our children to become.”

Having read all of these quotes within the span of a few hours, they naturally coalesced into a message that was abundantly clear to me: Stop telling your son who he should be and just become that man yourself.

Like I said, inconvenient.

Now, as many parents do, I talk at my teenage son a lot, and a good chunk of the time that talking ends up being correction, which is really just a nice way of referring to criticism. Perhaps you think I’m way off on that, but consider what I say to criticize correct my son’s behavior: “Quit cussing so much. Be more responsible. Prioritize your sleep. Seriously, another Dr. Pepper? That music is inappropriate. Pick up after yourself. Think about someone else for once. Stop being so lazy. Put your own damn socks on your own damn feet. Take the towel into the bathroom before you get in the shower. Flush the toilet when you’re done with it. Raise your grades. Get your shit together. Don’t be so judgmental of other people.”

(That last one’s just a little too ironic, don’t you think?)

As I type out those critical corrective statements, I can’t help but ask myself this: where does the need to control every aspect of my son’s life come from?

After taking some time to reflect, I figured out that it comes from a place of fear; namely, the fear that if I don’t correct every single adverse or irritating behavior, then my son is going to end up…well, I don’t even know specifically. Just somewhere, or perhaps someone, not good.

But do you know what I’ve found is not effective at getting my son to behave the way I want him to? Giving him the rundown of all the things I want him to start or stop doing. In fact, pointing out and criticizing correcting all the things he does wrong usually ends in one (or both) of two ways:

  1. He strengthens his resolve to continue behaving the same way he has been.
  2. He gets super pissed off at me and our day devolves.

But here’s the real kicker, the thing that truly reveals how foolish my commitment to verbal criticism correction is: Most of the behaviors I ride his butt for are the very same behaviors that I am guilty of myself.

Although I believe I do it a bit more tastefully, I also cuss more than I should. I probably don’t sleep enough. I drink way too much Dr. Pepper, though I’m trying to switch to off-brand diet cola. While I don’t listen to music very much, I do listen to podcasts that could be considered inappropriate. I’m messy, self-centered, and lazy on a regular basis. Today I’m wearing shoes without socks because I just couldn’t be bothered. Thankfully I never take my towel out of the bathroom to begin with, I’ve never had a problem remembering to flush, and I’m not in school, but even still I definitely don’t have my shit together. And, in case you couldn’t tell by the way I criticize correct my son, I have a slight problem with judging others.

At this point, I’ve quoted three old white guys, so I figure it would be a nice change of pace to quote an old Middle Eastern guy: “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

Ah, heck.

If the same measurement I use for my son were applied to me, I’d be screwed. There’s no way I could measure up. And yet I’m expecting a fourteen-year-old boy, who’s super cute but a little dumb, to meet all the expectations that I can’t?

To put it eloquently, that’s buckwild, dude.

When I impose expectations on my son that I myself can’t even meet, I crush him with a ten-ton standard and all but ensure he doesn’t become the adult man I want him to be.

This isn’t to say that I shouldn’t have expectations for my son or that I shouldn’t ever criticize correct his inappropriate behaviors. Rather, I should model what it looks like to meet those expectations, and when I need to criticize correct, I should do it from a place of integrity, of actually having mastered the skill I’m trying to pass along. “Do as I say and not as I do” is not a good parenting technique.

My job is to become the man I want my son to be someday. My job is not to lecture and berate and shame. My job is to model, and only then to guide when necessary. I can’t lead my son to a place I’ve never been myself.

When it comes down to it, being a better father begins with being a better man.

Therefore, a wonderful question for me to ask in any situation, perhaps even better WWJD, is this: “How would I want my son to handle this?” It’s a wonderful question to ask, but the answer is usually a sucker punch.

Another worthwhile question, which I recently forced myself to answer with pen and paper, is this: “What attributes do I want my son to exemplify?”

Based on that question, I made the following list for my son:

  • Loving.
  • Kind.
  • Gentle.
  • Self-controlled.
  • Vulnerable.
  • Brave.
  • Patient.
  • Compassionate.
  • Responsible.
  • Hard-working.
  • Forgiving.
  • Peaceful.
  • Humble.
  • Pure.
  • Respectful.
  • Positively defiant.
  • Considerate.
  • Committed.
  • Helpful.
  • Problem-solving.
  • Honest.
  • Defined by integrity.
  • Wise.

Once I finished writing up that list, I realized I had just written up my job description as a father. Until I figure a few of those things out, I should probably pipe down a bit. If I want my son to become those things, he first needs to see what they look like in reality, and also that they’re worth pursuing.

In the fourteen months since my son joined my family, I’ve noticed that he’s become a whole lot more like the man I am now and not much like the man I tell him to become. That’s because a lot of kids tend to emulate their parents’ behaviors more than they tend to behave according to their parents’ demands. “Monkey see, monkey do,” as they say.

(“Monkey pee all over you,” others add, but that’s not particularly relevant to the point I’m making.)

I can’t control my son. He is going to do what he wants and become who he wants because he’s his own person and that’s how people are. And even though it’s frustrating for me, it’s actually a good thing, because that’s how his internal voice, his personal sense of right and wrong, will develop. But so often I let my fear take the driver’s seat and I try to grasp for control, which never ends well. My son actively resists my attempts to control him and I feel like I have even less control than I had in the first place.

It logically follows, then, that if grasping for control over my son doesn’t actually give me any control, then perhaps controlling my son is neither possible nor a worthwhile goal.

What I can control, however, is myself. In fact, one of the only things I can control is the kind of man I am, the kind of husband I am, the kind of father I am, the kind of employee I am. And I’ve found that when I focus more on what I can actually control, then I truly feel like I have control in my life. As William Ernest Henley wrote, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.”

So, to tie everything up with an aggressively masculine bow, here are three things that I’m going to do to help my son become the man I want him to be someday:

    1. Talk less. Richard Rohr said, “If you talk too much or too loud, you are usually not an elder.” By “talk less,” I don’t mean that I’m going to disengage from my son’s life, but I am going to bite my tongue when I feel like criticizing correcting my son’s behavior. (Natural consequences are usually better teachers anyway.) Instead, I want to replace those negative statements with positive statements about who he is now and who I believe he will be someday. I’ve been told a thousand times, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” and I believe that applies to parenting. However, the opposite is also true, so if I do have something nice to say, I ought to say it.
    2. Identify the traits and behaviors I want my son to display. Saint Francis of Assisi said, “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” It was incredibly helpful to see the list of all the things I want my son to be and do, but also convicting to consider how terrible I am at modeling them. Similarly, when I ask myself “how would I want my son to handle this situation?”, I’m shocked by the disparity between the way I actually handled the situation and how I would want my son to handle it.
    3. Become the man I want my son to emulate. Joseph Chilton Pearce said, “What we are teaches the child more than what we say, so we must be what we want our children to become.” Teenagers have a lot of influences in their lives, and I strongly believe that parents are high on that list. At times that may not feel true, especially when we compare our influence with that of their friends or the celebrities they follow on Instagram, but I think parents would be surprised at just how much our behavior impacts and changes theirs. So that means my son is watching me and taking notes. He’s seeing the way I live my life, and he’s learning far more from that than he’s learning from the words that come out of my mouth.

I’ve purposely written this article about myself because I want it to be clear that this concept is something I’m still wrestling with every day. I’m not writing from a place of superiority here; in fact, I’m screaming from the bottom rung while simultaneously trying to pull my head out of my own tush.

However, now I want to level my aim at you, dads (and moms, if you’re eavesdropping). Are you the man you want your son to be someday? Are you modeling the traits you want your daughter to live out when she grows up? When you criticize correct your kids’ behaviors, are your words backed up by your life?

If the answer to any of those questions is no, why not? What are you going to do about it? What do you think will happen if you don’t make a change to the way you live your life? What do you think will happen if you do? Is it worth it?

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