What a Child Learns From You

By the age of six the average child will have completed the basic American
education. … From television, the child will have learned how to pick a
lock, commit a fairly elaborate bank holdup, prevent wetness all day long,
get the laundry twice as white, and kill people with a variety of
sophisticated armaments.
– Russell Baker, columnist and author (b.1925)

Some will read that quote and think it ironic. Others will think it sarcastic. Some will consider it pessimistic.

Yet what the quote missed is a child’s main source for life information: parents. The quote is not wrong, just inadequate to convey the message.

While Baker had the age right (“by the age of six”) he missed something extremely important, critically important about what a child learns in his first five years. In his first five years of life, a child learns what life is about.

You may think that age five or younger is too young to understand what life is about. Especially what the extremes, the best and worst of life, are about. While that is generally true, a young child gains his sense of the values that he will carry through his life from his parents. The life values of parents tend to be passed along to children, in so many varied ways that they can’t be enumerated.

Let’s say a young child is with her father in a store. The child doesn’t pay attention to what the father buys or speaks about with the clerk. Back in the car, she overhears father saying to mother that the clerk gave him back five dollars too much and that he didn’t return that money. That brief experience might leave a mark for a lifetime.

Children learn by example, as most of us know. Many parents don’t know how important their role modelling is. A young child whose parents use drugs is highly likely to use drugs or alcohol when he grows up. Kids need to learn what life is about and we tend to not teach them until they are older, “old enough to understand.” It doesn’t work like that. They learn about life by taking markers from their parents, sample experiences they generalize into life lessons.

The little girl whose father kept the five dollars will generalize the experience to accept that it’s all right to steal from someone, especially if the person doesn’t know about it. A general belief that dishonesty is socially acceptable may not happen with a single incident. The child has no idea that the clerk will have to make up the money from her pay when she cashes out at the end of her shift. Nor might the child care. The kid is interested in what the parent does because the whole purpose of parenting is to teach actively and to be role models passively and the primary objective of a child is to learn about life from her parents..

For most children, their parents are their life for the first two years. How the parents act is how they come to believe that life is. At the time of life when their brains act like sponges to find examples to help them understand what life is about–their main purpose in life in their first few years–what their parents do is treated as a model for what they should do. They want to be adults, as all children do. They accept the values of their parents because they are desperate to learn what values adults have.

For various reasons, a child will sometimes understand that what a parent has done is wrong. Neglect or abuse of the child, for example, might make the child determined to be just the opposite with his own children when he grows up. However, history shows that a majority of children who were neglected or abused become parents who neglect or abuse their own kids. The acorn doesn’t fall far from the oak.

Ironically, bad behaviour by a parent may be picked up more readily than good behaviour. The reason is that parents behave well and properly most of the time, whereas bad behaviour is so different from the norm and so rare that a child will pick up on it. The child, wanting to fill in the gaps in his understanding of life values he seldom has opportunities to learn, will see some action or hear some words by a parent and generalize from them. One tiny example of bad behaviour (believed to be tiny by the parent) becomes a life lesson to be utilized later by the child.

If you are the parent or grandparent of a young child, everything you do may be scrutinized by the child and generalized as an example of a life value or lesson. The admonition “do what I say not what I do” doesn’t work with kids. They take their first examples more from behaviour of parents, less what the parents say.

If you are the parent or grandparent of a young child, you are a living example to that child of what life is. Lessons learned later may change that, but most times the later lessons do not stick the way role model lessons from parents stick.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for parents, grandparents and teachers who want to know what a child needs and at what time he or she needs it. It teaches people how to treat parenting responsibilities with a professional attitude.
Learn more at http://billallin.com

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