You generally hear the piece of advice I’m about to talk about within the first six minutes of any decent writing class. It’s this: Show, Don’t Tell. Show your reader what you mean, don’t tell them.
A good writer does not say, “I was irritated.” She says, “My palms twitched. I looked at Donatella’s cheek and wondered if it would smudge her blush if I hit her with the badminton raquet I was carrying. Or maybe I’d just slug her with my new tote bag, the one she’d used to store her twenty pounds of ice in. Either way, if she continued to use the word “hot” as a term of praise, things were going to get ugly.”
The same principle obtains in parenting: you cannot tell your children the important things about life. You must show them.
I’ll be the first to admit that this is a bigger problem for a parent than it is for a writer. A patient writing teacher, constructive criticism and a little practice makes a teller into a shower in almost no time. Not so with parenting.
Why? This is the moment I dread in blogging. I ask a question, and then I actually have to answer it. I have no elegant answer. Perhaps you, dear reader, will be able to straighten me out in an elegant way in the comments section. (That, by the way is what the comments section is for. It is not a place to tell me where I can find teenage pornography or cheap pharmaceuticals.) But I will give it a try, utilizing the calming properties of the bullet point list.
- For starters, it’s hard. It’s hard to show your children how to behave rather than to tell them because it means you will have to start showing some things you might not know how to do very well. For example, if you want your children to stop shouting, you will have to stop habitually screaming at them to be quiet. You will no longer be able to utilize the volume that can be heard by the man who lives six doors down and recently died. The volume that works so well at securing their compliance. Nor will you be able to tell your kid to save his money. It is not that simple. Instead, you will have to stop buying cds, and new cars, and shoes, and cookbooks, and well, you know, the stuff you just bought about fifteen minutes ago.
- Writers tell rather than show because they don’t quite trust that the reader will get it without being told. This stems from an inherent bossiness, sure. But it also comes from forgetting that one of the pleasures of reading is getting it for yourself.
- It could be that we tell our children what to do because we are frightened they might not ever stop yelling, hitting, spending their money on pokemon cards unless we mention these problems all the time. As with the writer/reader mistrust, the parent fears the child will not get the lesson unless it is constantly given. The parent, however, has clearly forgotten or has never understood that children do not actually hear them when they speak. Remember the adults in Charlie Brown’s world? Did you ever hear one of them speak in any of those holiday specials? No. Adults don’t speak real words. They do a weird murmuring entreaty children don’t get because they don’t want to. This explains how they forget their lunches every other day of the week even though you say, as they leave the house, “Did you bring your lunch with you?”
- We do not really want to change our habits. No, that’s not strictly accurate. It’s hard to change our habits. It’s about as hard for us to change our habits as it is for children to learn to control their impulse to grab all the dessert and blame it on their sibling. I know, I’m repeating myself. This was actually the same thing I said in bullet point one. It is hard.
The Show Don’t Tell Rule is an offshoot of the Golden Rule, which , like showing rather than telling, is a rule that emphasizes doing the right thing.
In our house, the Golden Rule is expressed like this: You Get What You Give. Unfortunately, this has come to mean I Give You What I Get From You. That means, if someone hits me, I get to hit them back. If someone breaks my toy, I’ll get to break theirs. Quickly, it becomes the middle east around here.
The problem with showing and telling and getting and giving is that we have made them into result-oriented rules. We do unto others so we’ll get them to do unto us. We show rather than tell so people will understand things. We practice both rules because we want a certain result. And worrying about the result, about whether we will get back what we give, about whether our children will ever learn to clean up their rooms, save money, stop hitting their siblings, and put the toilet seat down when they’re done, can make us freeze up, do less than we might otherwise do freely. At its worst, worrying about the result can lead to horrendous results (see I Give You What You Gave Me.)
Perhaps if we simply do and show, not worrying about where it will lead, we will find ourselves enjoying the doing of right, however we have defined “right.” We might like the way the house feels when we’re not shouting. We might enjoy saving money, the absence of clutter. We might start looking at proper behavior as a pleasure rather than an obligation. This is only a theory. It’s one I’ll have to show myself for starters. But I wonder: If I stop worrying about whether the children will do the right thing and just go around doing it myself, to please myself, is it possible that the journey to my children’s adulthood will be more pleasant for us all?