2017-12-01 / Family Matters

Show, Don't Tell

David Rockower

I look out my kitchen window on an early summer day and see the sun shining on a field of possibility. I turn toward my 13-year-old son. He is staring at his screen. My blood begins to boil, and I’m tempted to repeat the mantra my wife and I have been using for the past 6 months: “Put that thing away and get outside.” But I stop and reflect.

Not five minutes earlier I was sitting at the kitchen counter, scrolling through the morning’s Twitter posts. He sees me do this on a fairly regular basis. But I’m reading thought-provoking articles about education or politics, I rationalize. He’s texting his friends or playing Minecraft.

Doesn’t matter, I counter. He only sees me staring at a screen, and therefore I am teaching him that this is sound behavior for an adult, so it must be fine for him. I vow to be outside tomorrow morning, shooting baskets or going for a run. I need him to see me doing this. More importantly, I need him to notice that my screen time has diminished — to show, not tell.

In writing, to reveal the, say, dark side of Aunt Gertrude, it’s far better to show her mistreating a pet than it is to explain how she’s a horrible, no good relative who is flat-out evil. The reader will learn all this from her actions; witnessing it firsthand is always better, more impactful, than being told. Writers and storytellers know this. Yet, it’s easy to fall into the trap of explaining personality traits. Why is this such a difficult habit to break? Because telling is easier than showing, and the same applies to parenting.

It’s easy to tell our children how to behave, to pepper them with commands: Don’t yell at your sister! Put that device down! Get off the couch and play outside! But telling in parenting is not much different than telling in writing; in writing, telling paints an artificial image, not entirely believable, and in parenting, telling only pings off our children’s seemingly impenetrable armor. And soon enough, we sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher. We become broken records, noisemakers, easy to ignore. Fortunately, as parents, we have another option: paying attention to our own behavior.

Recently, my sweet, empathetic 11-year-old daughter has been raising her voice when she becomes frustrated. She’s quick to escalate; with her arms spread and eyes wide, she is talking back. Quickly, I find myself repeating the expected, curmudgeonly retort: “Watch your tone, young lady!” Not only do I sound like a parenting cliché, but I’m also raising my voice. And, I realize, my arms are spread, my eyes are wide. I imagine I’ve always done this, but as I get older, I see myself more clearly. I’m reflecting on my own behavior in the moment. It’s a surreal feeling — to simultaneously bark orders and scold oneself for doing so. As my daughter storms out of the room, I’m left with the realization that she has learned all of this from her parents.

I think about my own behavior and what I can do differently: put the device away, lower my voice, be patient. These are changes I can make, but they will likely not have an immediate payoff. That’s OK. It’ll be worth the investment, I tell myself.

As I type this, my daughter is shouting up the stairs, “Dad, will you play Rat-a-Tat Cat with me?” I want to play this game with her, but I need to finish typing this essay first. I almost tell her so, but I imagine her standing behind me, watching me, wondering why the words on the screen are more important than she is. I know they are not; my daughter is everything. She and her brother are the reason I write. But telling her this means nothing. So, I do not finish the essay. I snap the laptop closed and immediately yell that I would love to beat her in Rat-a-Tat Cat. She squeals with excitement, because she knows I would love to play…right now. I’ve shown her as much. •SCM

With a sports-obsessed 13-year-old son, a spirited 11-year-old daughter and a goldendoodle who looks like a muppet, teacher David Rockower has a lot to write about.

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