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?


12 thoughts on “Show:Tell

  1. It is a wise non-parent who realizes how difficult life is for a parent. Nothing in my wildest dreams could have prepared me for the trials of fatherhood. Sure, we remind ourselves of the great delights and rewards. But in the midst of it all, we are human, and it is too often difficult to see the large picture. In those times, I try to step back and look at myself as the child.

    I recount the images I remember of being the child of my parents, the advice that they gave, which they were charmed and surprised I remembered decades on, the stories they told in teaching me a lesson, which they were sure I had forgotten, their looks (the glints and the glares) and their laughter. And, when I cry, even just a tiny tear, remembering these things, it helps me to return to being the father now, knowing that my sons will sit, like me, with moistened eyes in decades to come, wondering at the frustrations of their own parenting.

    And somehow, the back and forth of these transgenerational migrations make the experience a little bit more tolerable, in the greatness of its humanity.

  2. Hi Lily,
    Thanks for bringing up parenting. I know it’s hard, not because I had a big family to either grow up in or bring up. I didn’t. And I can’t offer any advice for how to be a parent. My daughter was too much of a sweetie to be difficult. I’m not sure I deserved her. But I gladly receive the gift.
    What you bring up in a general sort of way is how to deal with people. All people. I have been dealing with people in a church organization for 5 years and discovered that it is a wonderful terrain for learning how to get along with people who mostly just want to be right all the time. My way of dealing with it finally is to not have anything invested in the outcome of the church or relationships but to only try to help people make friends, have fun, and discuss challenging spiritual and philosophical topics; and to suggest tolerance for all people, including atheists. That last goal is meeting with some surprise and frowns. It seems that the main thing in this policy that doesn’t apply to rearing children is the “not have anything invested in the outcome,” especially the “anything,” although some of that view is what you are getting at in “At its worse, worrying about the result can lead to horrendous results.” So, I guess you’ve said it– figure out a way to come to terms with the issue of results. If we don’t do that, our showing or telling won’t ever be honest or useful.

    Jonathan, you sound like a great father. What you said reminded me of my father. I wanted to include a poem about him but it’s in my older computer that I’ve haven’t gotten uncrashed yet. My father was something close to a saint, who never, never told me to do anything, never yelled, but only showed me how to use a saw and screwdriver and he led the Boy Scout troop and he was incredibly polite and nice to people. Showing does work.

  3. Thank you for pointing at an issue that’s important to me in my writing and my parenting worlds. It started out so easy for me: my first child was a dream; I was the perfect mother, it was so, so easy. Then came my second child, who likes to rock the still waters, all the time, every day, constantly. (There’s no telling yet who the third will turn out to be.) She challenges me, questions everything I say, won’t listen, yells, hits and – thankfully not much any more – bites. With her I do a lot of telling, to the point that she and I are bored to nausea. She is now having some therapy, ostensibly for a fear of a dogs, but which is turning out to be helpful on the behaviour front too. I am also getting some tips – things I KNOW really, but sometimes freshly into a new skirmish I forget. I’m going to add this piece of parenting wisdom to my skill set and remember that I love her, she loves me and under all the acting-up she really does want to please.

  4. Jonathan — I completely agree with you. It’s always a good idea to imagine the other person’s life when you are struggling to know what the proper thing to do might be. It’s also fun to imagine other lives just as an amusement! Thanks for coming by; I so enjoy your father’s poetry.
    Hello Smokey — I’d like to see that poem about your father, who sounds like he really knew how to be a parent, instinctinvely. And, as you say, these skills are not just ones that apply to parenting, but they are about how we go about being in our communities. I like your approach to your church people. Perhaps you should also show them how to use a saw and a screwdriver — skills we could all use.

    Charlotte, Your daughter sounds like a child who’s going to be a wonderful person, someone who will make the world a better place because she doesn’t accept things as they are. I’m not great at dealing with this kind of child myself — the moment a very small person tells you you’re full of it is quite shocking. I suppose this child feels like everything is controlled by someone else, which is true and hard to deal with. Good luck, love helps enormously to get through this!

  5. For once, I can’t really give a sensible opinion, for I have no children and no experience in raising any. And unfortunately (in this situation, not for my mum) I was a very nice child and didn’t often have to be reprimanded or corrected. So no experince from the other side either. This sounds like a job for… bicycle repair man! (Sorry, I’m in a funny mood tonight…) But you’re right in your response to Charlotte: many things you may dislike in a small child, not accepting authority, stubbornness, going their own way, always wanting to know the why, are just the things that could make a wonderful adult. What a situation!

  6. Send him over please, the bicycle repair man. We could use someone to unstop the upstairs sink. Also, perhaps he could look into the little problem we’re having with whining when the mother says it’s time to take a bath, or stop playing on the computer, or put your shoes away. Edwin, have you thought about starting a blog called: You could answer questions about how to live our lives and also dispense practical advice about how to use a digital camera, play texas hold ’em, and what kind of beer you should serve in the summer. I’d be a subscriber in a second.

  7. Look, he’s mending it with his own two hands! I’d never seen it, never even heard of it — It’s hilarious. Thank you, Edwin. My life is richer for you and youtube.

  8. Great writing. I even loved your example of how to show not tell–funny stuff! Now that my sons are grown, I see examples all the time in the way they live their lives, of the things I showed them intentionally (reading, caring about others, appreciating art and music, for example) and lots more that I didn’t even know I was showing that I’m significantly less proud of. Telling never worked on them at all, they just tuned me out (and often still do).

  9. Hello Jana, Thank you! It’s hard, isn’t it, that the things we can’t always control show up in the behavior of the people we start off thinking we have so much control over. (That control thing ends very quickly, doesnt’ it?) Your sons sound wonderful. Best, BL

  10. Hi Lily,
    Taking advantage of your opening on parenting and being parented, I never miss an opportunity to honor my amazingly low-key, showing-not-telling (except about machines and tools, the supporters of everyday practical living!) father. This is one of many.


    Sunday afternoon
    he drives you to the airport
    to watch the big TWA plane
    land and take off.

    You leap like a monkey;
    fingers and feet clutch
    the tall wire-mesh fence.
    Your make-believe pilot’s face
    presses against steel goggles
    as wheels screech
    and smoke the concrete.

    The propeller engines growl
    into your ears
    numb your skull
    shake anything
    not strapped down
    in your stomach.

    A twentieth-century Leonardo da Vinci,
    he compares the silver flying machine
    to a majestic bird—wing flaps
    are feathers; the engine, a huge heart.

    His hands glide through
    the physics of fast air, curved surfaces,
    pressure differentials,
    and lift, discovered by
    an eighteenth-century mathematician,
    He spells it, you repeat.

    Later in the week after dinner
    you bicycle together
    to the railroad crossing to greet
    the Baltimore & Ohio freight train.

    You cheer the engineer,
    you count ninety-two cars out loud,
    holler at a man inside the red caboose,
    wave a slow good-bye
    like it’s your best friend
    moving to another town.
    His lecture on train gears and brakes
    is shorter than Sunday’s advanced course
    on powered flight.
    His eyes on yours,
    he pauses and smiles mid-sentence,
    making sure you love it, too.

    He doesn’t say
    it’s you he loves;
    you don’t hear it, either.

    He counts on the language
    of whirring propellers
    and whistling steam
    to deliver a message from the heart,
    even if it takes decades
    to reach its destination.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s