Modeling Behavior

modeling behavior

The telephone rang as we sat down for dinner. I excused myself to answer the call.

“Good evening. Is Mrs. Schmidt in, please?” I recognized the voice immediately. It was a telemarketer from a local non-profit organization where I had ordered five-year guaranteed light bulbs. For months the same two ladies had informed me of their establishment’s needs and I purchased light bulbs for every socket in the house, given a few to our neighbors, and stored a half dozen backups in the basement.

My comments about having enough light bulbs didn’t deter these sales women. The calls continued, but I didn’t want to talk to the light bulb ladies. It usually took me ten minutes to politely disengage myself from a call.

“No,” I replied. “She’s not here.”

“Do you know when she’ll be back?”

“No. I don’t know when she’ll be back. Goodbye.”

As I sat back down to dinner, my husband asked me who was on the phone.

“The five-year light bulb people. They won’t leave me alone.”

“Well,” Mark said. “Do you realize you just compromised your integrity to your children?”

It felt like a sledgehammer had hit me in the face.  In my desire to be non-confrontational and not to be rude, I had lied. Right in front of my three- and four-year-old daughters. As cool as you please.

What slippery slope had I slithered? There was manure in the barnyard and I was right in the middle of it.

My inability to be truthful and honest to the caller had compromised my principles. Why did I find it impossible to give any of a number of honest messages, such as: Excuse me. We are sitting down to dinner. I can’t talk to you.

Or, thank you for calling. I have all the light bulbs I need for the next five years. Good-bye.

Or, I could have been flat out rude and hung up the phone.

But for whatever reasons, I had found it easier to fib.

A white lie, a polite lie, but a falsehood, nonetheless. Casual deceit was not something I wanted to pass down to my children. It was true confession time.

“What I just did was wrong. I should have told the lady on the phone that I didn’t want to buy anymore light bulbs or that I was busy with dinner. I didn’t want to hurt the sales lady’s feelings. I didn’t want her to think I was mean and rude. But it is better to have the person on the phone think I’m rude than to have my family think I’m a liar.”

Our actions illuminate who we are. From my embarrassment I realized that I needed to choose my words carefully. I learned that in awkward situations there is a way to be honest, yet direct and kind. This was critical as I became uncomfortably aware of how my actions and words could influence my children and impact their perception of acceptable conduct.

That evening, dealing with my little white lie and my humiliation, I uncovered a fundamental truth:

Whatever you do, intentional or not, lights a path for your children. Make sure you’re headed in the right direction.

connecting with children

9 Responses to “Modeling Behavior”

  1. TornParent

    This article has spurred so much conversation for my husband and I. Our son is only 6 months old and we are talking about whether or not fictional characters will be a part of his life (i.e. Easter Bunny and Santa). What are your thoughts on that because aren’t those essentially white lies we tell our children? And what happens to our integrity as parents when our children find out we were fibbing to them the whole time?

    • Good morning and aloha!

      How to deal with Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy were issues my husband and I had to figure out, too.

      My husband is an engineer and is a factual numbers person. He’d say, If it’s true, show me the facts.

      On the other hand I’m a story lover and I think that stories sometimes can tell the “truth” better than facts alone.

      For me, the big ideas that make us human-love, faith, hope,charity, kindness, and so much more-beg for stories to make them real to our imaginations and to touch our hearts and minds.

      I think it is important to be clear in our own thinking about what we are trying to teach using a story or a myth.

      Here’s a piece I wrote on Santa Claus that might help with the idea of fact versus story.

    • HappyParent

      To TornParent,

      My son is 6 years old. We told him from the beginning that Santa Claus was pretend, and that it’s fun to pretend. He has always loved stories about Santa and Christmas. We did the same with the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy. It’s such a good feeling to have him “in on the joke” with us. We feel very comfortable with our decision.

      You can say, “Santa Claus is a pretend character. The story goes that…”

      • Thanks for sharing how you’ve handled the facts vs. story situation. How you choose to address our cultural myths to your children is what works for your situation.
        The big question is how do we maintain relationships built on trust and respect?
        There are a multitude of possibilities. Have fun!

  2. Maren,

    Thank you for sharing. The topic relates to this time of year for private schools, re-enrollment, when parents are faced with realizing the sometimes difficult decision of redefining their relationship with the school community, leaving earlier than anticipated.

    Do you have any insights to help families transition out of the school community? I strive to convey the message that it is important to role model honesty and grace and courtesy on behalf of their children, classmates, and the school community in which they belong.

    Proper closure, personal and professional, is a skill that will be repeated throughout life.

    Thank you, Maren, for your wisdom and words to all!


    • Colleen,

      My dad taught me: Don’t burn your bridges behind you.

      When we decide to make a change in our lives we can inadvertently burn our bridges by succumbing to short-timer’s syndrome.

      Short timer’s syndrome tends to occur when we’ve decided to make a major change, for example, change jobs, move to a new neighborhood or city, or change schools.

      As we look forward to the change we look around our current situation and focus on the negatives, most of which we didn’t notice earlier.

      Our neighbors are too noisy. The house at the end of the street looks tacky. Our coworkers have more bad habits than we can count. Our current college or school lacks essential learning activities.

      We can get caught in the following short timer’s traps, feeling a need to:
      • Justify our decision to others and ourselves
      • Defend our decision
      • Complain about or criticize our current situation
      • Blame others for our need to change
      • Hide our decision

      But guess what?

      There is no need to justify, defend, criticize, blame or hide our decision.

      Our decision is our decision. Period.

      With grace, courtesy and respect for others we can be thankful for our current situation while anticipating the new situation.

      We can simply say to neighbors: We’ve made a decision to buy a new house. We’ve enjoyed this neighborhood and we look forward to making friends in our new neighborhood.

      To our coworkers: I’ve made a decision to move to a new company. I’ve enjoyed working here and I’m looking forward to the opportunities in my new position.

      To our school community members: We’ve made a decision to move our children to another school. We’ve enjoyed our time here. Our situation has changed and we feel that now is the time to make a move. We will miss this community even as we look forward to our new circumstances.

      To the question of “Why are you leaving?” simply restate, “I’ve made a decision to make a change.”

      That’s all that needs to be said.

      That way you don’t fall into the short timer’s traps of justifying, defending, criticizing, blaming or hiding.

      As a school leader if I had the option of offering a quick departure for the family or staff member I offered it in order to help our school community avoid the effects of short-timer’s syndrome. We might have a good-bye ceremony in a classroom for a student or staff member, depending on the desires of the family or individual.

      If I didn’t have that option I tried to work out a transition plan about when their decision would be announced and offered some coaching on short-timer’s syndrome so they would have the words and understanding to keep their bridges from burning.

      Also I think an end-of-the-year celebration is a good tradition to have in a school community. The departing families have a chance to say their good-byes. New families that will begin in the fall can come and meet the community. We used to have a school picnic in mid-May, Spring Fling, to celebrate our year together and acknowledge the transitions of students, families and staff.

      I think we can help our school community members learn to gracefully put into play their decisions to change without burning their bridges by helping them avoid short timer’s syndrome.

      P.S. I’m also going to make a separate post on the blog about this topic.

  3. Louisa

    Several years ago I read your piece on Santa and found it very helpful.
    Although this piece is about telling the truth, there is another modeling issue –
    answering the phone during family community time.
    The a family spend together is important and (in my opinion) should not be interrupted by the phone or television.

    • Louisa,

      Thank you for seeing that! And I had to chuckle because of how life has changed over the years.

      This incident happened before phone answering machines. When the phone rang, you answered it. Now we have so many options so we don’t even have to hear the phone ring.

      When you are with people, especially the most important people in your life, turn your phones off. Enjoy your time together without interruption.


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