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When Children Are Watching

May 25, 2018

This morning, I read a New York Times editorial about our President’s etiquette in which the author included these words: “…he is violating Americans’ expectations of how presidents should behave — even of how adults should behave, particularly when children are watching.”

It got me thinking about why, as adults, we alter our behavior “when children are watching”. We do it so often, in fact, that the warning “not in front of the children” is a phrase that has connotions for all of us. In front of children, many of us try harder to be a better version of ourselves. Perhaps at some level, adults sense the hypocrisy inherent in what we tell children we expect of them and the version of behavior we present to them through our example.

As a teacher, I know what it means to watch one’s actions carefully—in even the smallest of ways—“because of the kids”. For thirty years, I worked with colleagues who called each other by first names in private but always courteously addressed one another as “Mr. X” or “Mrs. Y” in front of the children. It sounds strange, I know; nevertheless, the honorifics were instinct whenever they were present. I wouldn’t dream of calling Randy anything other than Mr. Ross in front of our students. I honestly believe if the science lab  caught fire, my teammate Stacy would have run in shouting, “Mrs. Froehle, Fire!” With children watching, we modeled respectful address and treatment of one another…always. It is second nature to educators to remember we are role models…in the hallway, in your neighborhood, at a restaurant. We know better than anyone how quickly a child takes your measure and tucks away what you are teaching. 

Unlike many professions, mine is also one where you must watch your speech carefully…because children are watching. Many a teacher can tell a funny story about letting or almost letting a bit of adult profanity slip in an emotional moment in front of the kids. A cold sweat breaks out as you realize the children or adolescents watching know what you said, almost said, or wanted to say. But you model careful dignity. You bite your tongue. Or you apologize with shocked horror as if you have no idea where that word came from. You show them such speech is not classy or dignified. You tell them you were completely wrong to utter it in this setting. They are watching. They are learning. They use language far more filthy on the school bus. You know it. They know it. You still act appalled at your verbal slip and fall. And you show them it matters how we present ourselves in these settings and always.

When you work with children watching, you try to model courtesy and citizenship in a community. You say “please” and “thank you.” You ask them to help you pick up trash off the floor in the hallway “even when it isn’t mine.” You model kindness. You shake your head gently or speak firmly when a child forgets manners, and you remind them of the better way. When they are cruel to one another, you hold them accountable for kindness. And you try to model what you teach in your own life. The parent who appears in your classroom door unexpectedly, irate, without an appointment while you are teaching third period, who somehow slipped past the front office secretary and is demanding to discuss the cheerleading tryout right now, dropping f-bombs and shrieking about fairness…you approach that person calmly, willing your own blood pressure to stay put. You ignore the false claims about your sanity and intelligence. You remind yourself you are a professional, that people get emotional about their kids’ lives and hopes and disappointments…but mainly, you remind yourself that children are watching. Thirty sets of eyes are on you. So you say firmly and calmly, “I’m not having this meeting right now, Mrs. X. I’m teaching class. If you want to discuss this, you’ll have to make an appointment or call me later.” 

You move to your phone and dial security to help this visitor out if you must. You then turn back to the kids watching, apologize that their learning was interrupted, keep cool, and you resume the learning without breaking a sweat because children are watching. Always watching. In the midst of challenging moments with other humans, you show that we can find a different way besides screaming at each other or calling names. How else do we teach children not to lash out when they are hurt? We show them it can be done.  I’m always stunned by the adults who prattle on about bullying and abstinence, and then are mean or out of control themselves. The mother who demands the school stop kids from being nasty to each other is active on a Facebook group where neighbors criticize each other or teachers at school in the ugliest hit-and-run comments. The guy at the basketball game gripes that kids aren’t respectful, then screams obscenities at the ref over a call he doesn’t like.

As a parent, I know my children were the often unseen audience for my life, and there were certainly times I did not show them my best side. Sometimes I simply had to say to them, “I didn’t handle that well. I’m sorry you saw me do that.” At the very least, in those moments, I was acknowledging to them that humans make mistakes and responsible people must own them and deal with the consequences. They got to listen to me agonize over careless words I’d said that hurt someone, and watch as I tried to make amends, and see me sad about the fact that “I’m sorry” doesn’t erase words a person cannot unhear. In other moments, I was more conscious of the ever-present lesson of my own living in front of them. When my husband and I navigated difficult life decisions; relationship disagreements; sticky situations with friends or work; or simply talked about the news, we held many of those discussions on purpose with the kids in earshot. We also chose very intentionally when to move those conversations out of their range. Some things are only for adult eyes and ears after life’s experiences prepare you to process them. 

Perhaps it is because I am a teacher that I cannot forget the basics of how our brains encode new information. The strongest learning happens experientially. Children really do learn what they live. They watch all the time. They tuck away what they see. They try it on for size in their own lives and play. Anyone who has watched kids fake a “wedding” with dolls or dress-up clothes or who has really listened to the running patter of little voices as they are pushing cars around or building with blocks or drawing something will hear familiar memes and stories being acted out in their own words, even things you didn’t think they noticed. In fact, trauma-informed care training is showing us that the things that happen when children are watching have lasting impacts far beyond the incident their little brains recorded…impacts we cannot undo easily.

So does it matter what we do when children are watching? Is it inauthentic to check our behaviors in order to try to show them the best of what people should be? I believe it matters deeply. “Do as I say, but not as I do” is no way to teach a child. Life will offer them many opportunities to be cruel, unethical, or disrespectful of people and institutions. The only countermove we have is modeling what is good as often as possible, letting them see us choose the right path even when it is hard, showing them what self-control for the greater good looks like, showing them how to treat others and how to live in dignity. Will we forget sometimes? Yes. But they never will. 

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