Do you remember your own childhood? For some of us, reminiscing on our early years brings joy; for others, tragically, it brings pain. Our childhoods are unique as fingerprints. What isn’t unique is how we learn as children. In every country, culture, and town, the way you learn is the same. It’s also the key to raising your children to be their best.
We all have those friends, you know, the ones who tell us how bad non-organic vegetables are for our health while also downing a bottle of vodka every Friday and Saturday night. Naturally, we respect their advice as much as they respect their liver. But should we always discount their health advice? What if they happen to be an expert in this area of health? The truth is, we still aren’t going to listen. It all comes down to contradiction. If our friend really knew about health, surely they wouldn’t be drowning their liver every weekend. Whenever we smell hypocrisy, we stop listening. That’s why bodybuilders sell protein powders and not average-sized dieticians.
The hypocrite sense
Your ability to sense hypocrisy is quite useful for your brain. Throughout the day, you’re bombarded with information. It’s just not possible for you to take it all in. This abundance of information extends to learning in general. Learning has a cost – it requires effort and energy. This means that your brain doesn’t want to learn something that isn’t worth the investment. One of these defences against information overload happens to an aversion to hypocrisy. It makes sense. If someone is giving you advice or information that doesn’t align with their actions, there is a good chance its bad advice. Otherwise, why aren’t they following it?
Now, it’s easy to see that there are obvious exceptions. Many things are just hard to do, and the advice is still important. Yet still, we have a hard time listening to advice the other person doesn’t follow. Understanding this is the key to raising children.
A trip down memory lane
Take a trip back to your childhood. Do you remember a time when your parents had a “do as I say, not as I do” moment? Maybe your mom told you off for lying only to have you catch her out fibbing. Your dad might have scalded you for disrespecting your teacher. And only a few days later, you catch him berating a customer service representative for making a mistake. You probably found yourself thinking, this isn’t fair. You might even begin to question how bad lying or rudeness really is.
All parents do this. When I’m a parent, I’ll do it. We’re human. But so are children, and they don’t learn by listening. They learn by example.
Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.James Baldwin
It starts from the womb
Do you remember when you were born? Probably not, unless you are one of a few people who apparently can. The reason you can’t remember is the same reason we’re so much smarter than animals – our brains come out as a work in progress. Most infant animals can care for themselves from day one. This is because they are born with pre-programmed brains. A human infant, in comparison, has no chance. While animal offspring are far more independent than our own, they pay for it with plasticity.
Brain plasticity is your brain’s ability to change and restructure itself. An animal’s brain is hardened in the kiln before they’re born. But our brain’s come out as malleable clay. We trade vulnerability for intelligence.
What goes in
As we come into the world, it’s all new. The brain has no idea what anything is and, as a result, doesn’t know what’s important. You know the feeling; when you start learning something new and find yourself taking notes on everything. You don’t know what you don’t know, so everything feels important.
Because of this, a child’s brain operates more like a computer. Their brain directly downloads all the information from the world. While your brain subconsciously appraises and tunes out irrelevant information, a young child can’t. Everything goes in, good, bad, wrong or right.
Walk the walk, not talk the talk
Children learn by observing – especially during the first 5 years. Do you remember the body language stats floating around? Between 70 and 93 per cent of communication comes from body language and tone – with only a small sliver being the actual words. Words have little effect. It’s our actions that persuade and shape our children.
Children are imitation machines. Their brain learns the only way it can, by observing and copying the world it sees. Study after study confirms it (add studies). In one example, children who witnessed an adult displaying acts of violence towards a doll were three times more likely to do the same. (add source) From here, it’s now hard to see how certain environments lead to dangerous behaviours and beliefs in children. Behaviours and beliefs that can take a lifetime to change.
Putting it into practice
Children learn by imitating. Whether you’re a parent, carer, or stranger – you play a role in shaping every child you meet. When you live with integrity and be the change you want to see in the world, it doesn’t end with you. You’re on display. The next generation is watching.
Never underestimate your impact. A single act of kindness or display of integrity can change the trajectory of a child’s life.
Growing children starts with us. We must live by the values we want our children to learn. Before we clean the house, we must begin with our own room.
Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.Epictetus