“Actions have consequences,…”
When we are teenagers, most of us hear some version of this from parents, teachers, coaches and others in positions of authority and sooner or later, we all learn that it’s true. What our early teachers fail to tell us (we’d roll our eyes at them anyway, so I understand why they don’t) is that the consequences for our actions grow larger as we grow up and take on more responsibility.
At some point as adults, we realize the influence of our family’s traditions, norms and values as we encounter contrasting models. Depending on each person’s life path and circumstances, this may happen early in life, or much, much later. I was in the military, so early in my adult life I learned that not everyone had the small-town, rural, Protestant perspective in which I had been raised. It’s been an interesting and wondrous journey, but one that I was certainly not prepared to experience coming from rather simple, rural beginnings.
I recognized the serious responsibility of passing on core family values when many people do: when I had my first child. As parents, we quickly learn that our actions have consequences for us personally, but also for our children. In the same way that we bring the values and traditions we learned from our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents with us into adulthood, our children are learning from us, every day.
In the fast-paced world of late 20th/early 21st century life, the responsibility for passing on family values is a larger task than it seemed to be when we lived in more homogeneous settings. There are examples everywhere – some good, others not so good – for our children to observe and evaluate. Soon into my parenting role I knew that my behaviors and actions had much bigger consequences than they had when I was younger, and childless.
Consider seat-belt use. In the 1970’s when I was a young kid, seat-belts were in cars, but rarely used. By the end of the 20th century, few people were driving without them. Now, forgetting to buckle your seat-belt can land you an expensive citation from the police. Before our kids graduate from pre-school we learn that “do as I Say, not as I Do” doesn’t work with kids, and if you don’t believe me – try getting into a car with little ones and starting to drive without fastening your seat-belt! A chorus of protest will generally arise form the backseat. Kids today don’t have much patience for double standards.
We want our kids to grow up safe, healthy and respectable. We want them to be good citizens and contributors to the greater society and for a lot of us this means establishing our families with the values we learned as kids, and passing it on means we model the behaviors we want to impress upon our children. So we wear seat-belts, eat our vegetables, and monitor our language; we don’t smoke and we allow someone else to drive if we drink. We do this because we accept that our actions have consequences and we don’t want the negative consequences to rain down on our children.
This formula is easy to navigate for issues like smoking, seat-belts and cuss-words. Many of us have left off our seat-belts for quick trips to the store when the kids weren’t with us and used blue language outside of their earshot. It’s fairly easy to catch ourselves when the kids are around and correct our behavior back toward positive role model mode. It’s NOT easy to catch, correct and hide our friendships, relationships and affiliations with those who may model behavior that is in conflict with our own values and traditions.
Here’s an example: in my family we are all animal lovers. We give money to local animal shelters, have taken in countless strays and homeless pets and consider our pets to be cherished family members. Imagine how confusing it would be for the young ones in our family if the adults chose to maintain close relationships with people who not only didn’t like animals, but were thoughtless and uncaring to animals on a regular basis.
We teach our children through our words and our actions. We also teach through our relationships with people and organizations that we value, as evidenced by the time we spend with them. Kids get these messages loud and clear. As adults we may be able to hang out with people whose core values are quite different than ours with few immediate conflicts; when our kids are watching us, however, it’s important to give our attention only to examples that reinforce the core values we want to pass on.
We only have our children’s attention for a short time. The traditions, values and ethical mores they learn now will be the foundation upon which they build the rest of their lives.
Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)
Teach your children well,… (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young)