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Why Kids Do the Opposite of What We Tell Them to Do

I wasn’t allowed to eat junk food when I was growing up in Japan, so when I moved to the US on my own, I went nuts eating at fast food restaurants practically every day. I think everyone has similar experiences. Some women of my generation were forbidden to have pink toys or Barbie dolls because their mothers firmly believed in the feminism of the 60s and the 70s. So when they gained independence, they went nuts surrounding themselves in all things pink. Some people were forced to go to Catholic schools and now they passionately hate Catholicism. Some are even making artistic careers out of their hatred of it. We see this pattern everywhere, every generation, culture, and gender. So why do we parents keep repeating the same mistakes? Didn’t we learn the lesson from our own experiences?

I have a theory: The kids do the opposite of what we tell them to do, because we ourselves don’t even believe it. In other words, they simply ignore what we say, and do what we do. Smart! (Yes, we too were smart like that.) Here is an example: One day when our daughter Annika was around 3, my wife found a big water bug in our apartment. My wife screamed and Annika became visibly frightened. Seeing how scared Annika looked, my wife changed her tone and tried to assure her that it was OK, but this did not help. Annika was still scared. I’m not particularly scared of water bugs, so I caught it, held it by one of its legs, and started tickling it; saying “tickle, tickle, tickle!” Annika then finally relaxed. Annika basically ignored my wife saying “It’s OK,” because she was smart enough to see that she didn’t mean it.

When we tell our kids that junk food is “disgusting”, they know we love it too. Some kids would repeat our mantra just to make us feel better and eat the junk behind our backs. Who do we think we are fooling? We did it ourselves too!

Here is something more serious: We tell our kids that racial “diversity” is important, and that racism is “bad”. But look who our friends are. The vast majority of us socialize with the people of our own race. We obviously don’t mean what we say. It has the same hypocritical tone of a parent who tells his kids to study math when he himself can’t even do basic algebra. We parents seem to have an infinite capacity to conveniently ignore our own double-standards.

We see our kids arguing with others at a park, and tell them, “Stop arguing. That’s not nice. You guys can work it out without screaming at each other.” Really? Can we do that? Are we so mature that we don’t ever need to scream at anyone? I often find parenting books ironic because they talk about children’s problematic behaviors as if we are beyond them. To me, parents are still behaving just like kids; the only difference is that we are trying to act like parents.

We also tell our kids to treat everyone equally. Really? Do we do that? We grownups are always busy looking up at the people above us, those who are richer, more successful, more talented, more famous, more powerful, etc., the people who can help us get to where they are. We rarely look down. When do we ever go out of our ways to befriend poor people who are subsisting on food stamps? Nobody I know does. I’ve never even seen a real food stamp.

We also teach our kids that being competitive is a bad thing. When a kid screams in joy, “I won!”, we say things like, “Everyone won.” We pretend as though we are not competitive ourselves. Once we finish our schooling, our lives consist of nothing but competitions. We are constantly competing for jobs, positions, awards, prestige, status, recognition, media attention, etc.. “Everyone” does not win, not even in a communist society. And, despite this pretense of no competition, we become fiercely competitive of our kids’ academic performance. Even if we put our kids into progressive preschools and elementary schools where competition is discouraged and “diversity” is encouraged, these virtuous ideals somehow fly out of the windows in middle schools. Those who can afford it would quickly take their kids out of these idealistic schools and put them in exclusively rich and white private schools. When we pressure our kids to improve their SAT scores, what do we think we are doing? It’s pure competition. The number of seats in prestigious schools is limited. If your kid gets in, that means someone else’s kid failed to get in. Make no mistake: It’s your kid or someone else’s. Everyone wins? Please.

Our kids are doing the opposite of what we tell them to do because we too are doing the opposite of what we tell them to do. They are observing everything we do and learning what works and what doesn’t. They don’t buy what we say; they draw their own conclusions. We should be happy that they are that smart, and we should feel bad about how hypocritical and delusional we are. If we have time to read a parenting book, perhaps we should be reading a self-improvement book.

What we say doesn’t matter. I believe the only thing that matters is what we do. If we are not capable of actually doing it, we shouldn’t even bother telling our kids to do it. If we preach what we cannot practice ourselves, they will do the exact opposite of what we tell them to do. On the other hand, if we can practice it ourselves, we don’t actually need to say anything to them. They’ll observe what we do, and learn from it.

But why is it so tempting to tell our kids to do something we cannot even practice ourselves? I have another theory: It’s because we try to live a better life vicariously through our own kids. The more we hate our own lives, the more we tell our kids to do what we cannot do ourselves. Many of us have kids in order to shift our attention away from ourselves. (In fact, the act of “falling in love” is also a way to shift our attention away from ourselves.) Without kids, our lives are miserable. We don’t know who we are and what we should be doing with our lives. Such deep philosophical questions are too painful for us to face, so we have kids to escape from that existential pain. Once we have kids, we suddenly have a purpose in life: Now there are other humans who need us to exist. Voilà! The existential question is answered and the pain is gone, at least until they are all grown up and don’t need us anymore. Have you ever wondered why your parents keep nagging you to come see them? Well, this is why.

It’s no wonder we are constantly telling our kids what they should do when we can’t even do it ourselves. The whole point is to forget about ourselves, and to stop questioning ourselves. Having kids is a way for us to be in denial of our own problems. This is why we cannot see our own double-standards. We often talk about “sacrificing” ourselves for our kids. Please. Let’s not push it. If anything, it’s our kids who are sacrificing themselves for us to be in denial, so that we don’t have to face our own existential pain. In that process, they are the ones who have to put up with our double-standards and listen to our nonsense.

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