Teach values, let kids know what you think

This column was originally published as part of my “From Where I Sit” series at in Towson Times.

It’s an awkward moment.

Your child just witnessed unbecoming behavior, heard inappropriate remarks or experienced something you wish you could rewind and erase from his or her memory.

But the damage is done. Every minute has been absorbed.

What can you do to shape that new, freshly implanted information? What’s a good parental response?

Parenting challenges me, even after 20 years of it. I often struggle to find the right approach.

Funny, though, how I don’t recall my parents ever having doubts. They told us what to do and we did it.

Forget rationalizing.

Forget explaining.

Forget justifying.

“Because I said so,” was the mantra of that day. Sure made life simpler.

But these days, “black and white” is difficult to find. Gray tends to rule with all of our tolerations, sensitivities and self-esteem concerns.

Hand-wringing helplessness can invade our parenting techniques.

I still shake my head remembering one incident.

At my son’s fourth birthday party, five friends gathered around the kitchen table to sing “Happy Birthday” when one little fellow interrupted our song.

“Hey, Pete,” he shouted. “Listen to this!”

And the child promptly began to burp each letter of the entire alphabet!

Mortified, I tried to redirect, distract and otherwise get the child to stop. But he persisted, boldly belching all the way to Z.

The table erupted, hysterical with laughter. Suddenly, I was not in control, and I didn’t like it. But more importantly, Pete began to burp the alphabet as did all his buddies.

We survived the incident and laugh about it now. But that hand-wringing feeling stayed with me.

Some time later, I overheard a sitter telling my son about skipping a class and not studying for a test.

“Hey, Pete,” I interrupted them both.

“Don’t learn that!” I blurted out.

And there it was in all of its honesty. The sound-bite popped out, unencumbered by tolerations of gray.

I did not want my child to learn what he was hearing.

I flashed a knowing smile to soften the remark, playfully winking at the surprised sitter. But the message was clear — to both.

And the phrase stuck.

Rarely do we parent in a vacuum. Although we may be the parent, we may not be in charge, especially as the teen years invade our lives. And like it or not, when we are present in a situation, and the child knows we are there, we are set up to either affirm or correct what we see.

Action is required.

When we can’t control what our kids hear or experience, at least we can offer commentary on how we feel about it.

So now, I say it and say it often. Anytime I don’t want my kids to learn something we both have just heard or experienced, I’ll inject, “Don’t learn that.”

And they smile back, darn sure of how I feel.

Recently, I’ve begun to use the flip side of that remark. My daughter’s boyfriend has brought a new energy to our home this summer with his thoughtful and mannerly ways.

As he helped me unload the car and put the groceries away, I called out to my son, “Hey, Pete, learn that!”

And maybe he will. But even if he doesn’t, he knows I think it is worth learning.

And the moments roll on — sometimes awkward, often challenging, always teachable — for both parent and child.