Imagine a cozy Saturday afternoon, lounging in your favorite chair, reading a book, and drinking lemonade. Unexpectedly, you hear the joyful playing of your children, ages four, three, and two. They are laughing and having a wonderful time. Every parent needs a moment like this, just basking in the greatest joys of life—a comfortable home, a beautiful day, and the most wondrous sounds of children coming from the other room. This is heaven on earth. You sit back, not reading anymore, so you can just listen to your playful and energetic children. Ah, to be a child again. In pure delight, you listen more intently to their conversation:
“Let’s go play Jerk!”
“Yeah! I love that game! I get to be the Jerk!”
“NO WAY! You always get to be the Jerk! It is my turn to be the Jerk first!”
“NO ME! ME want to be Jerk! ME be Jerk first!”
Well, your peaceful reverie has ended. You are not familiar with this game and you are not sure it sounds very wholesome. Even more, you cannot imagine what this game will entail and you become concerned. So wanting to see it through, you sneak closer to find out what is going on and what your children are doing. Before you can get to them, you hear the slam of the back door and your kids heading outside. You creep to the window, not wanting them to hear you, thus interrupting this curious activity. When you get to the window, you get the surprise of your life. All three of your children are on their tricycles and bikes. They are riding around on your large patio. They have quickly set up makeshift traffic lanes. Two of the kids are lined up at what appears to be an intersection. The other child has moved farther away. When the call to begin comes, the two younger children pull slowly forward on their way. Then the oldest comes racing around the corner, swerving right in front of his younger siblings. In feigned shock, they swerve their little vehicles in different directions, and you suddenly realize how this game got its name.
The younger children shake their hands in the air and shout, “YOU JERK! YOU JERK!” The kids laugh and get back together to decide who gets to be the next Jerk. You watch for a few more uncomfortable seconds before you detach yourself from the scene. You no longer feel peaceful inside, and a tinge of shame and guilt creeps over you. You recognize the scene and know exactly whom your children were imitating.
You can see in your mind’s eye, not just one scene, but many, where you did just what they were playacting. No parent of the year award this year for you!
This happened to my mother many, many years ago. In that powerful moment, she had the stark realization that she was being observed and imitated by her children in everything she did. Truth be told, we all are. Every moment of every day, someone is watching what we do. In every choice we make, we are teaching someone about that choice. For good or bad, someone is watching what you do, listening to what you say, and may just be following your example. This is especially true if you have children, grandchildren, or are regularly around children.
You are a model of what to do. You may not have chosen to be such, but nevertheless, you are. People are watching. Do you want them to copy you? Admirably, my mother decided to change the way she handled the people who frustrated or disappointed her. What will you do when faced with the expected frustrations and disappointments that surely will come to you? Will you react in a positive way, one someone could copy to your pleasure? Or will you feel a touch of shame or regret at having taught something you would never wish repeated (and definitely would not want to be traced back to you)?
I once volunteered to teach my church’s before-school religion classes, called seminary. There were about six of us teaching a large group of high school students every weekday morning at about 6 a.m. One morning before class was to start, one of the teachers shared an experience illustrating the importance of watching how you conduct yourself. She had just taught a lesson to her seminary students about not smoking. Later in the same day, she was getting gas for her car. Unconsciously, she took her little white pen and put it in her mouth, holding it between her lips so her hands could be free while she filled up the car. Unknown to her, one of her students was across the parking lot. What do you think the student thought she was seeing? Fortunately, the teacher later learned what this student perceived. She talked of how important it was to be a good example because you never know who is watching. I find this possibility motivating.
Often, I will think about who might be watching. As a father, I am guessing my children are not only watching, but recording every action I take for good or evil. Sometimes I think they are looking for evidence against me to use at some later date. Occasionally, I receive quiet thanks from them when they comment on something they saw me do. Most often, they say nothing. It is hard to be the example I need to be all the time, but I find it easier if I remember who might be watching me. I never want someone to falter or struggle because of something he or she saw me do or not do. I am striving to be true wherever I go. I want to walk a little plainer so I won’t have to worry about who may be following me.
Occasionally, I also think of those who will descend from me through my children and their children. I wonder what they will think of me and my choices. Will they be happy with what I did? Will they be proud to carry my name? Will they be grateful for the legacy I left them? Even they may be watching or looking back to me someday. I want them to be proud of who I strived to become. So please take a moment and think about all those who may just be following you and what you do. Think about your family, your neighbors, your friends, your coworkers, and others. Who might be watching what you do and say? Among those people, is there anyone “playing Jerk” because of what he or she saw in you? If the answer might be “Yes,” take action today to change what you are doing. You will feel good about it. You will feel stronger because you made a change to affect another in a positive way. It will make an impact. Teach what you really want to teach in both word and deed.