What we model

Today’s writing topic: how we learned our sense of normal, and how we pass that on to others. I have a lot of vague thoughts on this topic, and feel they’re

This time of year, a lot of my friends are struggling to adopt new habits. As they attempt to modify their diets, activity levels, patterns of work, housekeeping, or relationships, I hear the same comment repeated in infinite variations: we learned these things as children, which makes it hard to break away from them as adults. Sometimes this awareness is conscious, as with the friend who described yesterday how her mother catered extensively to every family member’s food preferences, and now she struggles as an adult to be a more adventurous eater. Sometimes the awareness lurks below the surface, as with the friend whose weight-loss diet challenges her because at a gut level, she feels it’s unfair to have to give up foods that she sees as normal and reasonable to consume.

I was listening yesterday to an audiobook – Marie Kondo’s magic of tidying up book – and was struck by her descriptions of how people’s efforts to reduce clutter could be derailed by family interactions. She described parents who dig through their child’s trash bags, pulling things out and insisting they be kept. Siblings who foist their unwanted belongings off on each other. Adult kids who use their parents’ home as storage facilities. Household members who have more energy for criticizing other peoples’ clutter than for facing their own. I admit that some of these interactions sounded very familiar to my own experience. The whole reason I was motivated to listen to a book about tidying up is that this is a skill I decidedly did not learn as a child, after all.

Years ago, I helped out a friend by looking out for her kids when she needed an emergency sitter. Not a big deal, just something I did one weekend and then mostly forgot ever happened. Later, I lost track of that friend – until social media came along, and one day I had a random Facebook ping. It was my friend’s daughter, who saw my name and wondered if I was the person she remembered from her childhood. Indeed, I was, and was delighted to see how she’d turned out. Then she told me that she looked for my name because she found herself teaching her daughter something that she’d learned from me. That was certainly food for thought. Especially since, as it turns out, the thing I’d taught her is something I’d picked up from my college roommate, not from my own parents.

Among the people I love, it’s all too easy to see the patterns repeating themselves – the parents who struggle with their weight, raising kids who are the same; the parents who are workaholics, whose kids overachieve in school and hobbies; those who struggle to maintain order, whose kids have no idea how to organize and maintain their belongings. I observe, but rarely say anything. Because what would I say that wouldn’t be the wrong thing to say? These are people I love, and the reasons I love them are entirely unrelated to the shape of their bodies or the organization of their homes or their skills at work-life balance. And meanwhile these parents are also modeling all the good stuff – the qualities that make them so wonderful and important to me. And those patterns are also obvious in their kids – the humor, the inquisitiveness, the clever turns of phrase, the generous hearts. In the end, won’t it be just fine if these kids turn out exactly like their parents?

And, I see my friends making the above-mentioned resolutions and you know what? Their kids will model those efforts too – and so will I. Because when someone you admire is openly and obviously trying to change, it’s impossible to ignore the issues that you were otherwise inclined to see as unimportant. As my friends are learning to be better to themselves, I hope I – and their kids – are learning the same.

In the end, I am not even sure of what my point is here. Except that apparently we are all learning from one another and teaching one another all the time. So if I need more motivation to be the best person I can be, I might remember how much impact that has beyond my own self.

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