(Kids love to imitate their parents)
Despite the many differences among various parenting perspectives and methods, there is almost always one point on which they agree: parents model behavior for their children. Many experts argue that parent modeling is in fact THE MOST IMPORTANT influence on children's behavior and their subsequent behavior as adults. Studies emphasize that lecturing, discussing, and informing children about one's values or beliefs pale in comparison to the importance of demonstrating commitment to these values by living them out in daily life.
This study is just one of many to recognize that children imitate adults. They imitate our use of technology, our eating habits, our ways of dealing with conflict, our punctuality, our cleanliness, our manner of speaking to others, the self-perception of our appearance, our enthusiasm for reading, etc. Beyond these concerns, we Catholics have to think about how we want to model the faith: our commitment to prayer, our embodying corporal and spiritual works of mercy, our participation in Mass, our practice of hospitality, our growth in virtue, our detachment to material possessions, our kindness to others, our concern for the environment, our interaction in larger society, our willingness to stand up for Catholic beliefs, our thirst for the knowledge of the Catechism, our fondness for Scripture, our love for Jesus and for Mary and the communion of saints, etc.
Wow. Just typing the above paragraph was enough to give me anxiety about my own personal failures in regard to many of these issues. Frankly, it's mortifying to think about the many ways I constantly fail as a role model for my children, and by mortifying in this case I actually do mean embarrassing. But of course, this can also become a parenting mortification when we avoid two potential pitfalls related to the pressure of being the perfect role model.
The first mistake is to excuse ourselves from striving to be a good role model. We might come up with a great reason, such as "To thine own self be true" or "I need to take care of myself." These perspectives might foster a consistent attitude of selfishness or may be something that we simply resort to in stressful moments. We may observe to ourselves the difficulty and challenges of our lives as parents and then tell ourselves that it's OK if we watch three hours of television in the evening rather than actively interacting with our family or attending a meeting for an organization to which we belong. After all, we need that downtime after a hard day's work. Or we might say to ourselves that it's fine if we munch on donuts in the morning so long as we provide our kids with a healthier breakfast. It's acceptable for us to yell angrily at our spouse, but our kids better not back-talk to us.
Or, rather than the denial of our own inconsistency of standards, we may tend toward procrastination: we tell ourselves that we'll start being a better role model for our kids when they are a little older and when parenting has gotten "easier." Once they are a little older and our stress lessens (and our night-sleeping increases!), we'll be better able to pray consistently or to open our homes frequently to friends.
Of course, this is a struggle, and it is a mortification, an opportunity to die to the self and live for God. Self-improvement is always a challenge. Self-improvement in order to model to children is definitely a challenge. But it is also a necessity if we care about our children's growth in virtue and holiness. We all have bad days or particularly difficult situations which bring out our worst. But we simply can't purposely shirk our commitment to modeling behavior for our children. If we disregard that responsibility due to our own stresses and worries, they will imitate our behavior by also neglecting commitment to virtue and holiness in difficult times. Instead, we must embrace that responsibility to model behavior as a mortification, and a particularly difficult one at that, for it is one where we will often have to do things that we wouldn't otherwise choose, and because of that, we are almost certain to fail on a daily basis. Not only that, but we will see our own failures imitated by our children in a way that truly must humble us, for example, when we recognize our hurtful words coming from their mouths, or our lack of organization reflected in their own.
The second mistake can come when we do make an effort and yet realize the extent of our failure. It can become possible to despair of our many weaknesses and to be discouraged by our children's behavior, attributing their inconsistencies and problems to our own inadequacies. At times, our disappointment in ourselves may become a downward spiral from which we seek to escape, not by renewed effort but by complete avoidance of the task.
Rather than succumbing to these feelings, however, it is best to take pity on ourselves, to paraphrase St. Francis De Sales, we can say "Poor old heart, you fail so often!" Recognizing our failures needn't cause despair, but ought to lead us to hope. It gives us all the more reason to abandon ourselves to God, to rely more fully on God's guidance in our self-improvement and in our parenting. Acknowledging our failures and need for the grace of God is a mortification, a death to self and opportunity to live for God by embracing hope.
The pressure on parents to be the perfect model can often feel overwhelming. And yet, when we embrace our own constant task of growth in virtue and sanctity rather than shirking it for more immediate pleasures, we can live more fully for God as well as become good models for our children. Granted, we will often fail and witness our failures in the behavior of our children. But this too can become a valuable opportunity for death to self in order to live for God.