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They Watch More Than They Listen

Johann Christoph Arnold

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Don’t worry that your children never listen to you. Worry that they are always watching you. –Robert Fulghum

Most of us know what’s good or bad for children. Unfortunately, there’s a gulf between knowing what you want for a child, and being able to ensure that he or she acts accordingly. It’s clear that in many homes the gulf is not being bridged.

When children and teens throw themselves into Goth culture, gangs, sexual relationships, or drugs, they’re not blind to all risks. In most cases, parents and teachers have made numerous appeals on behalf of their future, their health, and their ability to contribute to society in a positive way. But children aren’t dumb. If as far as they can tell, what their parents really care about is their grades, they rebel.

As conventional wisdom goes, teenage angst is “just a phase.” Adolescents have always chafed under parental authority, and they always will. When rebellion becomes a way of life, however, we cannot brush it off. We need to look a little deeper. What is it that today’s children are rebelling against so vigorously, and why?

To me, the answer is simple: hypocrisy. The word is admittedly a strong one; it may even seem cruel to suggest that there are parents who raise their children to act one way while simultaneously doing the opposite. But the hard truth is that this does happen – in far too many ways.

Hypocrisy rears its head early in parenting, but it mostly appears in very subtle ways. Sometimes it is rooted in the confusion that arises when a child hears one thing at school and another at home, one direction from one parent and a second from the other, one set of guidelines in one classroom, and an entirely different set in the next. In other instances, it stems from simple inconsistency: a child has just learned a lesson or a rule, only to find her parent breaking it, making an exception, or explaining it away. All this is usually harmless enough.

The real problem arises – and this is more widespread than one might think – when children are taught to “do as I say, not as I do.” Told this half-jokingly in one situation after another, they gradually learn that there is never anything so black and white that it is always good or bad, at least not until they make the wrong choice at the wrong time. When that happens, they get punished for their lapse of judgment. And they will always find the punishment unjust.

Being a father, I know how hard it is to be consistent – and conversely, how easy it is to send confusing signals without even realizing it. Having counseled hundreds of teenagers over the last four decades, I also know how sensitive young adults are to mixed messages and inconsistent boundaries, and how readily they will reject both as clear signs of parental hypocrisy. But I have also learned how quickly the worst battle can be solved when we are humble enough to admit that our expectations were unclear or unfair, and how quickly most children will respond and forgive.

Reflecting on the ways in which children so often mirror their parents – in actions, attitudes, behavioral characteristics, and personal traits – my grandfather, writer Eberhard Arnold, noted that children are like barometers. They visibly record whatever influences and pressures currently affect them, whether positive or negative. Happiness and security, generosity and optimism will often show themselves in children to the same degree that they are visible in their parents. It is the same with negative emotions. When children notice anger, fear, insecurity, or intolerance in an adult – especially if they are the target – it may not be long before they are acting out the same things.

Given the state of our culture, which undercuts parents at every turn, bringing up children is hard work. But despite all our efforts, most of us are far from the models we ought to be. Take violence. Everyone is concerned about it, and everyone agrees it is bad for children. But what is anyone really doing about it? From the halls of Congress on down, precious little. Politicians bicker about gun control, but is decisive action ever taken? Meanwhile the spate of school shootings continues, spawning ever more imitators.

Several times I have had the privilege of counseling victims’ families. Naturally, they needed time to talk and weep through their hurt and confusion, without having to cope with analysis and advice. But inevitably our conversation would come around to the root causes of school violence. Writing about this, novelist Barbara Kingsolver points out the contradictions in our attempts to address violence:

Let’s not trivialize a horrible tragedy by pretending we can’t make sense of it. “Senseless” sounds like “without cause,” and requires no action. After an appropriate interval of dismayed hand-wringing, we can go back to business as usual. What takes guts is to own up: this event made perfect sense.

Children model the behavior of adults, on whatever scale is available to them. Ours are growing up in a nation whose most important, influential men – from presidents to film heroes – solve problems by killing people. It’s utterly predictable that some boys who are desperate for admiration and influence will reach for guns and bombs. And it’s not surprising that it happened in a middle-class neighborhood; institutional violence is right at home in the suburbs. Don’t point too hard at the gangsta rap in your brother’s house until you’ve examined the Pentagon in your own. [These tragedies] grew straight out of a culture that is loudly and proudly rooting for the global shoot­out. That culture is us.

It may be perfectly clear to you that Nazis, the Marines, and the Terminator kill for different reasons. But as every parent knows, children are good at ignoring or seeing straight through subtleties we spin.

Here’s what they see: killing is an exalted tool for punishment and control. Americans who won’t support it are ridiculed. Let’s face it, though, most Americans believe bloodshed is necessary for preserving our way of life, even though this means we risk the occasional misfire – the civilians strafed, the innocent man wrongly condemned to death row.

…In a society that embraces violence, this is what “our way of life” has come to mean. We have taught our children in a thousand ways, sometimes with flag-waving and sometimes with a laugh track, that the bad guy deserves to die.

Clearly, the way we deal with violence is not just a social or political phenomenon, but something that has roots in every living room. Children see it on screen, or experience it at the hands of those who should be their protectors. But the issue here isn’t just violence. No matter the vice or virtue, it is utterly futile to try to educate a child about it as long as our deeds and words remain at odds with each other. As psychologist Carl Jung states, “If there is anything we wish to change in the child, we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could be better changed in ourselves.”

From Their Name Is Today.

angry teenage boy
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Contributed By Johann Christoph Arnold Johann Christoph Arnold

A noted speaker and writer on marriage, parenting, education, and end-of-life issues, Arnold is a senior pastor of the Bruderhof, a movement of Christian communities.

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