Does parenting, intentional or not, ever end?


The mother’s nerves were frayed, her patience worn thin.

The emotional state of her five-year-old son, Johnny, was about the same. He blurted out something to her. Then he did it again, raising his voice at least an octave.

Things started heating up. The mother raised her voice about two octaves, maybe three.

Then the words tumbled out. “I’ll teach you to yell at me!” she yelled at him.

And she did. She taught him to yell at her, whether she meant to or not.

It’s the classic example my father often used to illustrate that the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do philosophy rarely works.

We teach children by example and sample, whether we mean to or not — even in overheard conversations.

About 12 years ago, my then five-year-old niece, Ashley, asked her mother a strange question. “When will they get Penyata?”

“Penyata who? Penyata what?” her mother asked.

“Pen-ya-ta,” Ashley said, drawing it out for emphasis. “You know, the one in the cave. When will they get Penyata out of the cave he’s hiding in?”

“Oh, you mean Bin Laden, Ashley,” her mother corrected.

“Yeah. That’s the guy.”

I don’t know exactly how my sister responded, but I do know the story made our family acutely aware that children are not sitting in a corner totally unaffected by what’s going on in their world. They are little tape recorders receiving input and sometimes need help as they deal with real issues in their own way.

Their interpretation is often uncanny.

In a four-year-old Sunday School class, my father once reported, the subject under discussion was, “Where does God live.” Little hands were going up all around the circle, grabbing handfuls of air.

One little girl finally was recognized.

“God,” she said, in total sincerity, “lives in our bathroom.”

The teacher hesitated to follow up. It had all the markings of a loaded statement. But she decided to take a chance. She almost had to since every kid’s eye was glued on the little girl whose home provided God with bathroom habitation.

“God lives in your bathroom?” the teacher repeated.

“Yes,” she said with little bright eyes sparkling back. “In our bathroom.”

“And how do you know that, honey?”

“Well, every morning, when we are all getting dressed and ready to go, Daddy goes to the bathroom and knocks. Then he says, ‘My Lord, are you still in there?'”

I still chuckle at my father’s stories. Although I have no preschooler minds to consider since my kids are 25 and married, 20 and living away from home, and 19 and in college 3,000 miles away, I do wonder what I have left that I can still teach them.

“It matters what you say, Mom,” said one in a rare flash of transparency, when for once, I had held back my opinion.

Suddenly I realized that those tape recorders were still going.

And as I reread my father’s words, his familiar stories, I smiled and realized so is mine.

This column was originally published as part of my “Looking Homeward” series at