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March 9, 2015

Ask the Expert: “Do as I Say, Not as I Do?”


John headshot Nov 2014Dear ScreamFree, I recently heard John deliver the Launching Hope material, and he said, “It’s got to be in you before it can be in them” (referring to us teaching our children certain behaviors and values). Here’s my question: Is it ever fair for me to expect my teens to do things I don’t always do myself? I don’t want to be a “do as I say, not as I do” kind of parent, but I’m not perfect either!

John here. The truth is “Do as I say, not as I do” is part of every parent’s toolbox, and that’s okay. As a father, I want my daughters to fly higher than I do — in morals, in character, and in maturity. I hope I am not the upper limit of what my kids will become. That would be a scary thought, indeed!

Obviously, “do as I do” is an ideal. It is something for me to strive for. It would mean I am acting as a living model my daughters can watch. It would let them know that everyone — no matter how old — is expected to stretch for the same height.

But there is a catch.

I am weak.

I am not always a good adult. Contrary to any falsehoods I may or may not be propagating about myself, I am not always ScreamFree. Far from it. I am unable to always think, feel and act the way I want to — and the way I want to teach my kids to. I am mortal. I mess up. A lot.

If I hooked my expectations for my children to my own habits, waiting until I am perfectly disciplined before attempting to discipline them, it would never happen. So, my temper sometimes gets the best of me, but I still want to teach my daughters to temper their tempers. I don’t always eat well, but I encourage my daughters to. I have failed relationships, but that doesn’t mean I have nothing instructive to say about how they conduct themselves in the relationships they are forming.

I am not the person I want to be (yet), but I am still their father.

One problem with being a grown-up is that I have to discipline myself (the occasional parking ticket notwithstanding). No one else can or will do that for me. I choose how much sleep to get. I choose whether or not I go to the gym or sit around all day and eat pizza and ice cream. I choose. But, because self-discipline isn’t a factory preset on kids, it’s part of my job as a parent to provide the discipline my children lack — even though I myself sometimes lack self-discipline — until they develop it for themselves.

I recently had a mother tell me about her teenaged son. He’s overweight and sits around the house playing video games all the time, neglecting his schoolwork. When I asked her why she allowed that, she said she feels guilty correcting him because she is also overweight and watches television all the time, neglecting her housework.

It is true that he is learning what “normal” looks like from watching her, but, while her habits have been decades in the making, his habits are relatively new. He’s more malleable than she is, and it would be in his best interests to have someone provide the external discipline he currently lacks before that lack of self-discipline becomes internalized. Though her personal will is weak, she must exercise her parental will to get him out of his routine before the ruts get any deeper. She doesn’t want him to pick up every bad habit she has, so she must make him move in a different direction. Who knows? Maybe he’ll become a role model for her.

Will her son react negatively to this? Yes. Well…probably. I’m not a fortune teller; I cannot predict the future. But…yes. He probably will. So, she should prepare herself for that. Absorb his reactions with humility and humor. He may get personal with his pushback, but she must stay resolute. He may even be correct in his assessment of her character flaws. She must not take it personally. Everything he are saying is about him and not (ultimately) about her.

As a good general rule, the more you can close the gap between what you say and what you do, the better. This will lead to far less friction between you and your teens as you seek to set standards with them. They may still resist; they aren’t fully mature yet. But you’ll at least have eliminated the “legitimate double standard” accusation.

The bright side to the gap between how you act and how you expect your teens to act is that it forces you to focus on yourself and stretch higher than you otherwise might. And that’s a real win for you.

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