Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Parents: Lead by Example

A hot day in Portland, and Kiddo and I have set off on yet another Fountain Adventure Day. We stop first at Portland State University to see some small decorative fountains which can't hold much more than the pennies we toss in.  Then we press on to some of the city's larger fountains, Lovejoy Fountain and Ira's Falls, respectively. At the first, a man resembling a bowl of lumpy gray oatmeal is cooling his legs. Kiddo asks to go into the water, and I tell him that we can't, but not because this guy is funky: there is a sign just a couple yards away which specifically tells people that the fountain isn't intended for wading or water play. The second large fountain we walk by used to be a popular summer swimming and wading spot when I was in high school, and it still is, despite an identical sign posted prominently. Here, it is harder to explain to Kiddo that we can't wade. The smell of chlorine is thickly present, as mothers wade with their babies and older kids swim and dip their entire bodies underwater in the large pockets and pools of the fountain. "Are they being bad people, Mama?" Kiddo asks me. Instead of giving a complex answer, I suggest a great place that is okay for wading; we just have to walk a little farther. With that said, we trudge onward to Salmon Street Springs  (a sanctioned waterplay fountain on the waterfront) and my sense of having done right as a parent is intact.

So, what's the harm of ignoring the signs? To the passing glance, everything looked safe enough. Then again, there was water deep enough for a person to submerge, and no lifeguard present. Toddlers waded in their Pull-Ups, so "ewww" on that one. But the biggest harm is that one day, when Kiddo can read and sees me ignoring signs, he's going to think that he's exempt from the rules too.

I have to lead by example, and believe me, it's not always most convenient choice. Yet part of being a parent is growing up enough to put our own convenience and preferences aside for our children's betterment. Most parents would agree that being intoxicated in front of the kids is a big no-no, but there are many other things adults might do that are still just as dangerous or negatively influential as having had one too many. Some people joke that rules are made to be broken, but when some rules are broken, the results can be tragic and permanent.

Here are some areas in which we parents can positively model behaviors that might actually save our child's life:

Buckle Up. It doesn't matter if you are only driving the car into the garage, buckle up each time. Our family's practice is that the car doesn't start until we're all strapped in. When parents show the importance of this simple act, we set the example that our children should do the same. Each and every time, anywhere you go. If you have to unbuckle someone for a minute, pull over.

Hang Up That Phone on the Road. Here in Oregon, a driver must use a headset or another hands-free device to talk on their phone. This law is a joke to many drivers and is more or less routinely ignored. Worse yet, we've been told time and again that distracted driving is just as bad or perhaps even more dangerous than driving under the influence of alcohol, yet still people feel this impairment doesn't apply to them. It's other people that are more at risk, those less-experienced drivers. Above it all, are we? Do your kid (and perhaps someone else's) a favor and pull over to take that call. It only takes a minute and you might save a life...even if it's the life of your future teen driver, who will remember that "we don't answer the phone while we're on the road.".

Wear Your Own Helmet. I can't stress this one enough. If you don't wear a helmet when you are on wheels, why should your kids? Your head isn't any stronger or less vulnerable. On a recent camping trip, a father and his kids were playing a game of chase on bikes; only one child was wearing a helmet, and it was in the 'fashion-hat' position, on the back of her head so that her forehead was exposed. You might think that because you didn't wear a helmet as a kid (and you turned out just fine!) that you don't need one now. Let me ask: do you plan on the kids driving you to the ER? Don't put your children in the position of having to witness their parent seriously injured. And no, even close to home isn't an excuse. There's no invisible cushion protecting you or your children just because they're in the neighborhood or right in front of the house. This is magical thinking at its worst. Get yourself and your children a correctly-sized helmet and wear it properly. Just pack a cap in your bag if you are worried about "helmet hair". Frankly, I'm more worried about my child having a disabled or dead parent than I am about my hairdo. And for the sake of water safety, you have to wear your own life jacket, too. They're not just for kids. In bad conditions, age or experience won't prevent you from drowning. No one plans for accidents to happen--they just do.

Obey the Traffic Signals. You might be in a hurry, but jaywalking is still a big no-no. If Jenny and Junior know that mom sometimes crosses against the light because "it's fine" and she's in a hurry, they are more likely to do it too, when adults aren't present. The same goes for that already-yellow light; do you want your future teen driver blasting through 'pink' lights, risking their safety for an extra few seconds? When we slow down, we send a message that the safety of ourselves and everyone else around us is most important.  We do even better when we teach our children to routinely use hand signals when biking and to mind traffic control signs. That stop sign posted over on the right isn't just for cars, so while they're young we can instill the good habits of stop, look, and listen, on foot, on the bike, or in the car.

Notice Other Signs, and Heed Them. Do you expect your children to follow the rules all the time, or only when it works for them? Older children who can read notice when we don't follow the rules ourselves. Whether the signs say "no food or drink" or "DANGER--STAY OUT" we are setting the life example that when rules are posted, we follow them. It's good to point these out to our kids, so that they know that the rules apply to everyone, even adults. No one is exempt, even if no one else is watching. Obviously, kids aren't always ecstatic about having to follow directions or rules, but if they see Mom and Dad also complying with those posted expectations--even when it might not be 'necessary' or 'convenient', they have a powerful message that those instructions are to be heeded, every time. When Mom and Dad show that they themselves aren't above the posted guidelines, it does make a good impression.

When we take a moment to make the right choices, even if it means taking longer to do something or having to jump through an extra hoop or two, we are modeling not just 'how to be' in the world, we are teaching our children how to be considerate citizens as adults. Something many of us wish more adults were. We can start now. Read the signs, heed the signs, think about what our kids are seeing from us. It's one of the smartest things we parents can do.

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