Letting It Go
Insight: Role Modeling
Holding yourself accountable to live by the principles and values you are teaching your children
I used to let our dogs roam freely in the neighborhood. They were very friendly and didn’t seem to bother people. We also lived on a dead end street so I wasn’t worried about cars. Even though our city has leash laws, none of the neighbors had ever complained so I just let sleeping dogs lie, so to speak.
Then we got a visit from the local dogcatcher. Someone had anonymously tipped off the city government. We did attempt a few feeble efforts to limit our dogs’ activities but basically we just tried to ignore the situation. That all changed when we got a note on our door one Saturday. It was from the neighbor two doors down who had moved in a few months before. In the note our neighbor politely reminded us of the leash law and informed us that her attorney would be contacting us first thing Monday about the scratches on her Mazda Miata. Apparently a cat had jumped on the Miata while fleeing from our dogs, scratching the paint on her car.
After $125.00 to fix a Miata, and after much fuming about neighbors who call the pound and leave threatening notes, the glory days for the dogs were over. Chained to a stake in the back yard, our two four-legged felons gazed at me accusingly whenever I was in sight. With no way to make them understand, I felt horribly guilty about their imprisonment. My wife and I complained bitterly about the situation but to no avail. Our dogs were avid cat chasers and were not about to give up their favorite pastime voluntarily. I began to avoid our back yard to escape our attention-starved pets. Setting one foot out the back door set tails waving frantically with the owners of these tails straining at their chains to be as close to me as possible. And if this wasn’t bad enough, a few days later the escapes began.
Every day we would take the dogs for what we call a tee tee walk. The boys got their bikes and rode up and down the street while the dogs got to sniff all the interesting smells, stretch their legs, and do their business in the grass. The dogs, after being chained up all day, were busting to be free and began to watch carefully for the moment when we weren’t paying attention. A few unguarded seconds was enough and the dogs would be gone. They quickly became masters at this disappearing act and had their escape routes carefully mapped out.
I would become absolutely infuriated with these insubordinate canines and I would threaten, hold them down and growl at them to let them know I meant business and that they were not to try to escape. In my fits of righteous anger I would even smack the dogs across the nose at times. The dogs were properly submissive and apologetic during the moments of my rage and displays of dominant authority, but they continued to take every opportunity to make their break for it. They would always return a few hours later, soaking wet and very excited until they saw me. Immediately their tails would go between their legs and they would crawl up to me begging for forgiveness. I would do my best to try to put the fear of God into them. After venting my frustration on my two humble and totally apologetic runaways, I would lock them up again, convinced that they had learned their lesson and would think twice before trying to escape again. Of course I was wrong and as this problem continued and all my efforts proved to be completely useless, I became more obsessed. After an escape I could often be seen hurdling hedges and ditches chasing these two determined jailbirds. We would use leashes for a while, but every time we thought the dogs were reformed and would give them another chance at freedom, they were gone.
One afternoon I was loading my three boys in to the van to go hunt down my two incorrigible pets after they had escaped. I was fuming about the situation, and our boys who were very interested in all the excitement were asking questions as usual. Suddenly my son, Craig, spoke up from his car seat behind me and asked, “Daddy, are you ready to let your anger go?”
I didn’t know exactly what to say. Liz and I often used these exact words with the boys when they were upset with each other, but I never dreamed they would be using these same techniques on me. I quickly flipped through my list of excuses but couldn’t find a valid counter to my three-year-old’s simple, direct and irritating question. I tried to be quiet and ignore the question, but Craig just repeated himself, determined to press the issue. After many long seconds of my silence while Craig kept repeating his question, my wife, Liz, finally said, “Steve, you better answer him.”
Craig was now beginning to ask the question louder and louder in an effort to get an answer. Realizing the importance of the example I set for my son, I silently fumed for a few seconds before admitting my error to my three-year-old counselor. I said, “OK, Craig, I’ll let my anger go,” with some chagrin as we drove around the neighborhood looking for our pets who were still on the lam and out on an adventure.
When we found the dogs about two miles and ten minutes later, their tails immediately went between their legs when they saw me. I was careful to chastise them more calmly as they approached me, groveling on their bellies. “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” as the saying goes, and I knew that dog beating was not an option any more. I didn’t like it, but I could see no other reasonable alternative. I knew I had to change, and so from that moment on, I began to manage my frustration more carefully when the dogs took off on their adventures.
I continued to work on “letting my anger go” even though that phrase sometimes felt like a thorn in my side as Craig continued to remind me of my promise over the next month. Over time I did notice that my anger actually did get less and, I have to admit, I didn’t have all that unreasoning rage towards my dogs anymore. My peace of mind is certainly worth something, and looking back, I’m grateful for Craig’s assistance in improving my mental health. Turnabout is certainly fair play, and as a parent I’m beginning to understand that if I’m going to ask my children to live by certain principles, then I’d better be ready to do the same.
Points to Consider
- Learning from your children’s wisdom models healthy behavior
- Our children have much to teach us. Listening to our children, allowing them to have their voice be heard, and learning from their wisdom helps us to grow emotionally and spiritually. Being responsive to our children when they are speaking the truth also models healthy behavior for our children. This attitude of respect empowers our children’s communication skills and self-confidence. It enhances their ability to be life-long learners by showing them that we can continue to learn important life lessons at any age.
- Listening to your children helps them find their voice and trust their inner guidance
- Reflecting on this story, I’m struck by the profound impact of this situation on Craig and myself. By acknowledging the truth of his words, I reflected to Craig the wisdom of his internal awareness. Because of this type of open communication in our relationship, Craig now knows that he will be heard and that I will honestly evaluate the truth of his words and will change my behavior accordingly when appropriate. He now knows that his words have power and that he can make a difference in others’ lives because I let him make a difference in mine. Craig has learned to trust the wisdom of his own inner knowing because he clearly sees the demonstration of how his ideas positively apply to real life issues.
- As a parent, I am deeply moved by my son’s ability to speak the truth innocently and without malice. Craig loves me unconditionally with nothing held back, so he makes it easy for me to hear his truth.
- Learning from your children helps you to grow emotionally and spiritually.
- Craig is helping me to let go of my anger, and my life is certainly more peaceful for it. What I am realizing is that Craig, in his childlike authenticity, is helping me to release those emotional habits that I never needed in the first place. I have had to examine the ways I act irresponsibly with my anger and how I often blame others, whether it’s my friends, coworkers, my family, or our dogs. Through these types of interactions with my children, I am learning to own responsibility for the ways I play the victim role and then try to justify my temper tantrums.
- Living by principles, not power, creates a healthy emotional environment for your family.
- Finally, this story reminds me to live by principles rather than by power. First and foremost, I teach values to my children by my example. They will do as I do, not as I say. It is enormously humbling to see my children copy my positive and negative behavior in big and small ways, and this gives me motivation to continue to learn and grow.