I’ve got a confession to make. I have engaged in two acts of unintentional shoplifting over the past few years. The first incident occurred approximately four years ago during a family excursion to Sea World. My two daughters, dad, and I toured the polar bear exhibit and exited through the gift-shop. Before leaving, we spent some time browsing through the toy section. My daughter Brooklyn, who was two-years-old at the time, became especially attached to one of the fuzzy, stuffed polar bears. However, after perusing the overpriced souvenirs, we decided to depart without making a purchase.
Our family then headed to the penguin encounter, where we were about to step onto the conveyer belt that moves through the exhibit, when I noticed that my daughter Brooklyn, who had been in my arms the entire time we were window-shopping, was still holding onto that fluffy, white bear.
This was my first incident of unintentional shoplifting, and apparently it was the beginning of a pattern. Fast-forward to a few years later to a time when my daughter Addison was just over a month old. One day, Addison and I took a stroll to the grocery story so that my wife could catch up on some much needed sleep. During our return trip, I came to the sudden realization that the box of sprite resting underneath our stroller had never been paid for. This was my second incident of unintentional shoplifting.
Now at this point, it is important for you to know that shoplifting is against my values. I don’t believe that it’s okay to walk out of a store with items one hasn’t purchased, so the discovery that I had become an unintentional shoplifter a second time was a big deal!
Fortunately, I have learned that I’m just as good at sneaking items back into a store as I am in slipping out with them. Not only did the Sea World cashiers have no idea that my two-year-old partner in crime and I had crept out with one of their overpriced toys, they were equally obvious when we stealthy re-entered the store and quietly slipped that fuzzy, white bear back onto the shelf. And, when Addison and I tiptoed back into Albertsons with our heisted box of Sprite, casually strolled into the nearest check-out line, paid for it, and left, no one in the store knew what had actually taken place.
Now, I understand that exiting a store unintentionally with an item that hasn’t been paid for hardly counts as shoplifting. But, the point is that these items would have been easy to not return. In fact, keeping these “stolen goods” would have been the simplest path to take. But, I intentionally decided not to do this for a number of reasons.
First, as a psychology professor, I believe that “all behavior is communication”. This has quickly become one of my favorite sayings. I first heard these words spoken by our dean, Dr. Barry Lord, when I was in graduate school. Shoplifting, even by accident, communicates that under some circumstances, taking things without paying for them is okay. I am a huge believer that our children’s attitudes and values are more often caught than taught. Others are more likely to learn from the actions that we take than from the words that we speak.
Parents who adopt a “do as I say, not as I do” parenting style will eventually come to the disappointing realization that their words have much less of an impact on their children than their actions. Parents who long to instill strong values in their children, must first have strong values themselves. Moms and dads who would like their kids to grow up with healthy boundaries, positive relationships, and a strong work ethic, must model these qualities on a consistent basis.
In fact, modeling is one of the most powerful forms of communication I know. It’s also really hard to fake. Children are very much in-tune to what is really going on, and they know when mom and dad are putting on a show. If we parents are nice to each other in front of the kids, but treat one another poorly after the children are asleep (or after we assume that they are asleep) our children will figure this out. If we occasionally don’t pay for an item from a store, thinking that the kids are too young to remember, our actions will have an impact.
How do I know this? Believe it or not, my understanding of how actions influence behavior comes from my studies as a domestic violence counselor. You see, professionals used to assume that when domestic violence occurred and a baby was present while the violence was taking place, no detriment to the child occurred. It was as though those infants were too young to understand what was happening and too little to be impacted. However, years of research now proves otherwise.
Today, we know that infants who are exposed to acts of violence in any way, shape, or form (even the sounds of violence), are actually the ones who are at the greatest risk of being negatively impacted. When these children mature, they have difficulty self-regulating and have a much higher incidence of violence as adults than the general population. Infants exposed to domestic violence are even at greater risk than children in the 5-12 year age range who witnessed the violence. The reason the impact on infants is so significant is because during these early years of life, the brain is forming at its highest rate. Foundational experiences—which may not be directly remembered later on—are developmentally foundational. Early experiences become the base-line for what we will later consider to be normal.
So, why am I sharing this on a communication blog? I’m writing this as a gentle reminder that our character matters. But, please know that this is a reminder to myself as well. Please know that this exhortation, is not coming from someone who has everything figured out, but instead from a dad who is in the trenches with you, working hard each day to sow positive seeds into the lives of his own kiddos. I once heard character defined as “who you are when no one is looking”. I think I picked up this definition from Pastor Bill Hybles, but am not entirely sure. Nevertheless, I like it. Who we are, and what we do when no one else is watching, or more likely when we think no one else sees, matters a lot
In this post, I want to encourage you to keep pressing forward, and modeling for your children the character qualities that you would like to see them develop. Other people watch and learn from what we do. The actions we take on a daily basis communicate more powerfully than our words ever will. Fortunately, just as negative actions (like domestic violence) influence our children in a negative way, our positive actions (such as kindness and respect) also rub off on our kids. So this week, keep in mind that, “all behavior is communication,” and then communicate well!
If you would like to leave a comment or continue this conversation, I’d love to hear some of the ways that you are passing on positive values to others.
Oh, and if you’d like more information on how negative actions, domestic violence in particular, impacts infants you can check out the First Impressions video by clicking on this link: First Impressions.