For better or worse, children learn from everything and everyone around them. They are sponges, soaking up knowledge through listening, observing, and feeling. One of the strongest methods of learning for children is role play and imitation. They also learn by carefully observing what and who their parents approve or accept, and what and who their parent disapprove of or disavow. Common sense suggests certain connections between parental modeling and children’s choices. For example, it seems that parents who use tobacco products would be more likely to have children who do so. And that parent who use alcohol inappropriately would be more likely to have children who do the same. And, finally, that parents who are sexist or racist or elitist or classist would be more likely to have children with the same prejudices.
Research does generally support those correlations, but it is important to be cautious about drawing conclusions about solutions, especially simple solutions. For we all know that simple solutions to complex problems have an almost overpowering appeal. The more complex the problem, the more complex the effects on everyone! And complexity tends to increase the intensity of people’s feelings about the problems. No one likes feeling helpless or powerless, no matter what their age. It is human nature to need some sense of control in order to maintain a basic confidence in one’s own ability to manage problems and challenges. Complex problems challenge our sense of control because there are so many levels of involvement whether one is talking about the complex problem of an individual, a family, a community, or the larger society.
This combination of the way in which children learn and the human tendency to oversimplify creates an important job for parents. First and foremost, parents need to be able to acknowledge their own weaknesses and inconsistencies to themselves. Thoughtful understanding is based on empathic compassion combined with fact-finding investigation. And parents need to develop thoughtful understanding of their own problems to be able to talk with their children about them. It is confusing for children when they learn in school that smoking is bad for one’s health or that alcohol is a drug and have to make sense out of their parents’ choice to smoke or drink. It is doubtful that there is a parent who smokes who does not also with they did not, at least at times. Parents often feel embarrassed or even ashamed of their problems. Parents who practice thoughtful understanding for their own difficulties and challenges become better able to model appropriate problem-solving for their children.
As a way of supporting the development of thoughtful understanding in your children, pay attention to the messages that fill our world on a daily basis. Don’t ignore messages that you agree with or messages with which you disagree. Let your children know what your like and what you don’t like about the media that surrounds us. Let your children know and then wait for them to ask for more information. When they approach you, help them get the facts about whatever they are concerned about or interested in. And help them develop compassion for their own and others people’s problems. Support thoughtful understanding, the foundation of compassion.