My child just said what?

Maybe it’s the first time your toddler drops the F-Bomb. Maybe he just asked you why the cashier at the grocery store has a big belly like Uncle Josh. Maybe he just told you he loves you. It’s inevitable: There will come a moment when something your child says will take you completely off guard. And chances are you or Mommy are responsible.

You hear people say children are sponges, but you can’t fully appreciate it until you see it. Whether you mean to or not, you are teaching your child every time you speak or act. They learn an incredible amount of information from you in the first few years of life, and it’s not always something you intended to teach them.

Before I had kids of my own, I had certain ideas on how I would handle disobedience, tantrums, and general rambunctiousness. In my mind it played out something like this:

Child: Whine, whine, scream, yell, yell, I’m an a-hole, whine, scream, whine.

Me: Enough of your foolishness. I’m your father, and you will do as I say. Sit down and behave or face my wrath.

Child: Gee, Dad, I hadn’t thought of it like that. You’ve intimidated me into compliance, and I now fear the repercussions of my actions.

That would be super awesome. After four years of fatherhood, I still don’t understand why they don’t make more children who respond well to threats and logic. Things would be much easier. I now know the above situation would actually play out something like this:

Child: Whine, whine, scream, yell, yell, I’m an a-hole, whine, scream, whine.

Me: You stop that right now, brat. Under my roof we obey my laws, and you will receive no explanation as to why what you are doing is wrong.

Child: I have learned from you that demanding obedience in a raised voice is the way I get what I want. In turn, I will speak to you in the same manner you are speaking to me, which means we will constantly be shouting at one another.  

Maybe I’m paraphrasing a bit, but I’m definitely not exaggerating by much. The point is your children learn their first social skills from you. If you choose to rule with an iron fist, you cannot be surprised the first time your son responds to you by swatting you on the butt and yelling in your face. Now I’m all for spanking, but that can’t be your first reaction.

I used to shake my head in disbelief when I saw my uncle say to his daughters, “Please stop being loud and obnoxious. Thank you.” But now I use that approach with my boys. I—most of the time—don’t start with harsh discipline. If after a polite request or two they still don’t get it, I’ll have to switch gears; but after watching Bubby grow up and hearing how often we are complimented on his behavior, I realize he learned manners from Wife and me. And it all started with how we have  responded to and disciplined him.

You can’t realistically expect your child to be a perfect angel at all times; she’s human and will have bad days just like everyone else. But when she does act up, take a half step back, look at the behavior of hers you’re trying to change, and think about whether or not she may have learned it from you. It could very well be that the key to changing your child’s behavior starts with changing yours.