Kids Can Smell Hypocrisy a Mile Away

Today’s post is about parental hypocrisy, but let me be clear, I’m not judging anyone here. No one tries to be a hypocrite. And many of the things I’m about to describe are so minor that they would normally not even be on your radar. Blatant hypocrisy is a chain-smoking father telling his son to never smoke cigarettes. Everyone already knows that sort of “Do as I say, not as I do” parenting is ineffective.

What I want to bring to your attention today are the more subtle forms of hypocrisy that don’t readily come to your attention. And the reason I want to do that is that your children are keenly aware of them, and these subtle incongruencies between what you ask of your children and your own modeled behavior severely undermine the positive messages you’re trying to send.

If you ask your kids to do something that you don’t personally do, they’re unlikely to obey. For homework, this doesn’t need to be the exact same behavior, since you’re not a student. But, as an adult, you do have boring work you need to do, and if you can find opportunities to perform this work in the presence of your children, it will help them. For example, you probably don’t have math homework, so it’s difficult to lead by example directly here. But you do have a budget to maintain, a retirement account to manage, or taxes to deal with. For studying, it’s unlikely that you have any upcoming tests, but there are plenty of things you could be learning in order to advance your career or better yourself.

I’ve previously hinted at this idea when discussing parental self-improvement. To review, the key questions to ask yourself are:

  • As I expect my child to be improving, am I also working on self-improvement?
  • If I am improving myself, am I making a point to actively model it in front of my children, including making the struggle of the process public?
  • And if I’m not working on self-improvement, is it really fair to expect my child to be?

Greg often suggests that parents and kids sit together at the kitchen table during homework and study time so that the students get to see adults working while they’re working. But let’s be careful here; we’re not suggesting that you sit at the kitchen table while your children work so you can supervise their homework. That would do more harm than good because it would hinder their developing sense of agency. Remember, what we’re striving for is to allow children to learn how to be in charge of their own learning. We just like the idea of the kitchen table being a place where parent and child sit quietly together, getting done what each individually needs to get done. There’s something powerful about sitting next to someone else who is working while you’re trying to work; it makes it easier, more normal to be working.

It’s also true that if you ask your children to stop doing something that you do yourself, they’re unlikely to obey. This is most prevalent today in the realm of technology. Are you worried that your child spends too much time online, checks his phone too often, or spends too many hours playing video games and watching shows? If so, you may be quite right because many kids do struggle with tech-addiction. But so do many adults. So before you judge your teenager for his excessive screentime, take stock of your own. It is absolutely important to set boundaries around tech for kids, but it’s just as important to lead by example: put your own phone away, turn the TV off, pick up a book, or go outside. Don’t just set boundaries for your kids, set them for yourself.

Remember, kids can smell hypocrisy a mile away. Even if your tech behavior is much more controlled than your child’s, your criticism of his tech use will cause his brain to latch onto every instance of you checking your phone at dinner and every time you’re watching TV while he’s doing homework. There are two solutions to this challenge. One is to be the change you want to see, as mentioned above. And the other is to admit that it’s hard for you too. Admit to your child that you’ve caught yourself checking your phone impulsively, or that you have a hard time resisting the urge to watch your favorite shows, or that you often find yourself wasting time on social media. This makes any boundaries you set around tech for your kids feel less like an accusation of wrongdoing and therefore less likely to trigger defensiveness.

Lastly, there’s a whole other hypocrisy issue around executive function. Parents are often dismayed at their children’s lack of organization or punctuality. Parents are often upset that their children struggle with time management, forgetfulness, and procrastination. Parents often wish their children would display better manners and better emotional regulation. This is all perfectly reasonable, but there is an uncomfortable question we all need to be asking whenever we witness such things in children and teenagers:

How am I that?

Parents don’t have perfect executive function. Parents forget things. Parents are sometimes disorganized. Parents procrastinate. Parents sometimes fail to manage their emotions in a healthy way. So before you judge your children for their underdeveloped executive function, remember that you’re human too.

And I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: Please don’t pretend to be perfect! Humans are very good at learning from failures – and not just our own. We’re also quite capable of learning from failures we observe, so let your children see your struggles. And don’t just struggle – do something about it. Get strategic and employ some tactics that will help prevent similar struggles in the future, such as alarms, written reminders, or calendar entries. For a child, it’s a very powerful lesson to see a parent fail at executive function and then use some sort of strategy to do better in the future.

Here’s one way we see parents hiding their executive function challenges from their children. We often have back-and-forth scheduling conversations via email in which the parent is doing the communication, but the high schooler is being CC’ed on all the emails so she can be aware of her own schedule. Once in a while, the email chain switches from a conversation about scheduling to one about a mistake made by the parent – a forgotten appointment or a lapse in payment. And what usually happens? The parent usually doesn’t CC the student when discussing the error. We think this is a missed opportunity. If you hide a mistake from your child, you’re losing a chance to show that you’re an imperfect human just like the rest of us. Own your mistake, and then model self-compassion.

Now, your kids already know that your executive function isn’t perfect, so when they sense that you’re hiding it, they come to understand that being disorganized or struggling with procrastination are shameful things. And shame makes behavioral change and progress much less likely. People who feel ashamed about something are much less likely to ask for help, and they’re more defensive when help is offered.

Whatever you’d like to see your kids do differently, you’d better be mindful of any subtle incongruence between what you ask of your children and what you do yourself. Otherwise, your well-intentioned advice and wise instruction might fall on deaf ears. Kids can smell hypocrisy a mile away, and when they do, they stop listening.

Share this: