Show, don’t tell.’
It’s the most hackneyed advice for writers, and something that has always left me somewhat in the dark. You tell with words, right? Pictures show, right? Well…no. We have to paint a picture with words, we have to create a scene in someone’s mind so that the words disappear and there is something else there, something like a vision.
The same can be said for parenting. When I’m telling my kids what to do I or when I launch into one of my favorite topics in the “Boring Lecture Series” I see the glazed-over look right before they stand up and walk out of the room or, even worse, brazenly fill their ears with headphones.
So, what can I do? How do I show instead of tell?
I guess I have to exhibit the kind of behavior I want them to emulate. Gulp. That’s a scary thought. But recently I had a parenting win of sorts when my 15-year-old got out of bed at 5:15 am and headed to the gym with me to work out.
I was slightly stunned, amazed even, that he had asked if he could come to the gym with me. I go at this ungodly hour to get it in before the day takes off with me and I lose the will. I have been doing it over the last seven years or so, making my way in the dark to the Y. It is well known to my children, though they are mostly slumbering well past my departure.
I have tried to tell my teenager in the past that he should go to the gym. I have tried very mellowly to persuade, with words, and invitations. None of those words seemed to sink in, though, until this year when, suddenly, having started to work out a bit with the baseball team, he all of sudden asked to join me on my morning adventure.
The heart swells in these moments, at these junctures where your teen actually asks for your input, your teaching. It is a rare beautiful thing, not to be taken for granted. And I thought to myself, as I crossed my fingers in hope that his tall form might arise when I woke him as planned (and it did), that there is no way to convince kids except to show them. It is arguably hard to get up in the dark, to dress against the chill fall morning and get out the door while no lights are on in other people’s apartments, while alarm clocks bleat out only to be slapped into snooze mode. But I do it, all the time. To be fair, in the same way he has, sadly, seen our not-so-great behaviors — our argumentative tendencies, our lack of self control in the yelling and cursing departments — he has seen my husband and I get up morning after morning and make our way to the gym. We have shown him this. He thinks it’s normal, achievable, a habit that he can replicate for his own good.
I was so pleased to introduce him around to my early-morning gym friends, to the people who ask where I’ve been if it’s been too long. I was so proud that my boy was following me in my sneakered footsteps around the fluorescent-lit weight room, tired but motivated, eager to get strong and fit. And I’m inspired by him to continue my own habit, not to give up and give in to the comforts of my new mattress and my soft bedding, but to rise tomorrow and the next day and the next (of course skipping a day or two here and there) to show my kids it’s a great thing, a thing that makes me feel good.
We thanked each other for the shared experience, and I was happy I hadn’t pushed too hard but had, instead, focused on setting at least this one good example.