There’s no time like right now to get my confession out to the world: I’m not perfect. Yep, I said it. I’m not a perfect human being and I’m definitely not a perfect mom. On top of that, there is this little person right here saying “I want to be just like you, Mommy” and copying every aspect of me, down to the color of my socks.
The Copy Game
My daughter is extremely imaginative and loves to role play. Sometimes she plays a game that drives me absolutely insane (and honestly, I think other people would go crazy in this situation too). Her ‘game’ is to literally be me–to copy every single thing I do all day long, from the moment I wake up. And it can go on ALL DAY. She is quite tenacious…or savage, depending on how you look at it.
Talk about pressure!
If it pull out my phone to send a text or (god forbid) browse social media for even one moment, she’s right there pulling out her pretend phone–which could even just be a small notebook–swiping and poking away at the imaginary surface. Exactly. Like. Me. And then I see how ridiculous it is to stare at this inanimate object so much and put my phone away.
I don’t want her imitating that behavior, just the good stuff, you know? But our children did NOT come here to make us look good (anyone with kids you can verify this fact with certainty).
My Child, My Mirror
Our children act as mirrors, continuously reflecting us back to ourselves–whether it’s beautiful to look at or not–we are forced to see who and what we are. Not only might they look or act scarily similar, they’ve been paying attention to us their entire lives and learning from our example.
Having been a preschool owner for nearly a decade and a parent for almost two decades, I’d sum all of my parenting wisdom up in one sentence: Children learn by observing and imitating, much more than they learn through instruction. In other words, kids are wired to follow us, to copy us. That’s how we truly end up passing our knowledge on to the next generation. Thus, what they learn is not always what we intend for them to learn.
There are aspects of ourselves we don’t like and our kids show up to show them to us. It’s like always having someone around to shove a mirror into your face on your worst zit days. Parenting is not the most comfortable process. Sometimes you want to run away from the image being shown to you. Some parents may even take out their dislike of themselves onto the ones reflecting it back to them, onto their own children. But that’s not fair and it’s the equivalent of shooting the messenger when you don’t like the message.
My Child, My Teacher
We usually imagine our children are here to learn from us, but what if I told you that they are mainly here to teach us instead? What if we allow ourselves to step back, be humble, and learn from them instead of imagining we are here to dispense “how to” advice? Only then we can receive their gifts of wisdom.
Yes, of course we have to teach our children many things: how to eat, sleep, crawl, dress, think, believe….oh wait. How much of that is actually our responsibility to teach and how much of that are we simply called to witness the emergence of, to honor the existence of? What can our children actually teach US about life?
As for me, my children have taught me to slow down and live in the present moment. They’ve taught me to be grateful for all I have and to let go of small things. They have taught me so much more about life than I ever imagined they would. Maybe try an experiment, try seeing what you can learn from your child rather than what you can teach them and see how it goes.
Either way I can’t stress enough that the vast majority of your “teaching” as a parent is going to be guiding by example. We will be showing them how to live, not telling them. We show our kids how to live in every little thing we do. From dressing ourselves, preparing food and cleaning up after meals to modeling how to treat others, we show by doing. We show them how to drive by doing it in front of them for 16 years. Yes, that particular one terrifies me because my teenage son is about to start driving and I am constantly asking myself whether or not I’ve been a good enough example for him.
“I want to be JUST like you”
Now, to be sure, not every parent is going to hear their child say this phrase. In fact, sometimes they will say the exact opposite. They might say “I hate you” or “I don’t want to be anything like you.” This is normal, especially for teenagers as they develop their independence. There needs to be a healthy pulling away accompanied by a desire to discover who they are, outside of you. This is when they begin to develop their own mind and usually try to stop following the examples of their parents. But that doesn’t mean your children aren’t still paying attention. Unconsciously some part of them is still imitating you, perhaps even more so than ever before. Your example really matters.
But if you ask my six year old daughter–right now, I am her whole world. Certainly her teenage years will come along and knock me right off this pedestal. In the meantime, she thinks I’m the coolest person alive. She wants to write books “just like mommy.” She wants to compose and sing her own songs perched at the keyboard and crooning into the microphone “just like mommy.” These are the moments when I am proud of my example and encourage her to follow her dreams, to become an artist if that’s what she wants to do. These are the times when I don’t mind if she copies me.
Then there are the other times. Times when I recoil at the image being reflected back to me. Do I really act that selfish? Lazy? Boring? Repetitive? Lame? Am I that cringey? Yuck! Parenting is NOT all roses and pretty Instagram posts, okay? It’s real and it’s 24/7. It’s always having someone there to bring you down a notch just when you think you’re actually succeeding (for once).
Don’t Be Like Me, Be Better Than That
In the end, you have to take it all: the good stuff and the hard-to-swallow pills. There are no shortcuts or easy way outs when it comes to raising children.
Parenting, if done right, can be the shortest path to healing, purpose and joy. If done unconsciously and for the wrong reasons, it can be the shortest path to insanity.
You have to be willing to let your children come “through you, not from you” as the poet Kahlil Gibran wrote about in his book The Prophet. You must be willing to witness the reflection they are showing back to you and use that realization to humbly change, grow and become a better version of yourself. Improve yourself not just for your own sake but so your children will have a better example to follow as well.
My biggest hope for my children is that they will actually improve upon my model. That they will somehow take in my good examples as well as my bad ones and not repeat all those mistakes. But I can’t choose that for them, it’s up to them to decide who they are and how they want to be in the world. I can only offer my examples-both good and bad.
Go Easy On Yourself
No matter what, do not think less of yourself when your little mirrors are standing there showing you the truth. Thank them. Thank yourself for seeing it, for being willing to look at it all–even the imperfect parts. Go back to my first sentence and really take it in: I am not perfect. You are not perfect. We are not perfect and we never will be. Get over it. Move on.
It’s not the “being perfect” that matters, it’s the effort of working hard to improve when you see something that needs work. The most important part is to keep going, to get back up when you fall down. Let your kids see you getting back up and persevering. Let them see you humbly acknowledging your own shortcomings and working to improve.
Being a parent is hard. Whether your child wants to be just like you or whether they seem to repel you like oil and water, you are their north star. You’re the primary example against which they will compare everything else for the rest of their lives. Live a good life in front of them. Love them for who they are and love yourself for who you are too.
I have made peace with the fact my daughter is occasionally going to act like a 43-year old single mom who sometimes looks at her phone too much or stays in bed too long but who is also following her dreams. I’m living my best life with an open heart full of love and I guess that’s someone I don’t mind her copying after all.
By Sarah Caton