As a boy I was mesmerized by what could be done with a handful of dominoes. Not for their original purpose, I still have no clue how the real game is played. My fascination instead came in the way magicians and other conjurers using hundreds or thousands of them could create complex geometric shapes full of colors and strange patterns.
I was no more than ten years old when a PBS station documentary featured a long forgotten illusionist as he constructed a masterpiece with over ten thousands dominoes set to resemble the Statue of Liberty. The program reported the painstaking detail and effort that went into his preparation aligning one domino strategically beside the next, piece by piece, line by line, hour by hour remaining ever conscious of how one misstep could erase his hours of work in a matter of seconds or how one misplaced domino could bring the finale to an immediate halt.
My favorite part was right before the artist turned his imagination into reality. With the pieces laid out, the anticipation ran high as his gentle nudge set into motion an arranged spectacle of clicks that brought his design to life.
This trivial event has remained in my conscious for its symbolism. Propelled forward by the one adjacent to it those dominoes have come to represent the potential behind a single human act.
Not long ago I read an article from a woman defending her open marriage and touting its benefits. Her distorted interpretation of marital fidelity didn’t shock me near as much as her declaration of being a mother of two pre-school aged children. As I read her arguments for how open marriages were far superior alternatives to conventional matrimony, I couldn’t help but wonder how she juxtaposed her stance on commitment with the understanding of her responsibilities as a parent.
Of all the duties fatherhood demands of me, I feel the most important is preparing my children for adulthood. Loving them is paramount, protecting them is natural, but modeling the behaviors that will serve them throughout life and help to shape their futures is my overarching mission. And as my children have become older I’ve began to realize one important principle towards achieving this goal – what I say isn’t nearly as important as what I do. Because they are children doesn’t negate the fact that, like all of us, they pay more attention to my actions. Talk is cheap is a lesson learned at an early age.
Yet one of the greatest delusions I now witness among parents is the belief, in fact the conviction, that kids don’t pay attention and it would’t matter if they did because parents aren’t accountable to their kids for their actions.
That was all I could think about as I read how this mother and wife gladly walked her husband to the door for his date night with another woman while she stayed home to take care of their children. I couldn’t help but wonder how she rationalized this against her motherly instincts and how would she eventually explain to their children why mommy and daddy don’t come home some nights. While an extreme example it is no less representative of many parents albeit on a less questionable yet just as damaging moral scale whether that be alcohol abuse, drug use, infidelity, pornography, or any other on the laundry list of behaviors most parents would immediately condemn their children for participating in at any age.
The justification I most often observe when it comes to these questionable behaviors and their role as a parent is the argument that “I’m an adult and they are children and I have gained the right to do things they can’t”. And though this may sound logical on the surface it altogether discounts real life and frankly assumes children in general are morons.
My son is eight and already he has the insight to call me out when he observes me acting the hypocrite – he’s eight! At ten I’ve noticed behaviors in my daughter similar to mine yet we’ve never talked about them. This has forced me to concede what so many parents before me already understand – our kids are watching us and they’re also taking notes. It’s because of this I must constantly remind myself, like those dominoes, that my actions can and do have consequences on my children.
One of the primary motivators that led me to finally break my pornography addiction was my son. Having struggled with the shame and guilt, I never wanted him to experience that same humiliation. But the more I thought on it, as his father, how I could I lead him down a better path if I was still on the one I was trying to keep him away from? How could I be the father he needed while I being crushed by my own deceit? How would he ever hear me over the sound of my own hypocrisy?
I’m thoroughly convinced that parents will be held accountable for their actions if not with their children’s words it will be with their children’s deeds. The parent who abuses alcohol shouldn’t be surprised when their child does the same; the mother whose most pressing concern is looking younger shouldn’t be shocked when her teenage daughter suddenly equates her own self worth to how she looks. When we parent like no one is watching we invariably leave it up to our children to discern the difference. We fail to recognize that if our children see mom and dad doing what we tell them they should because we are ‘mature’ they will still assume it must be all right for them too. When we parent in such a way we leave it up to our children to determine right from wrong allowing them to set the direction on their own morality GPS.
From all this experience and observation I’ve discovered that the more transparent I can be with my children – in word and deed – the better parent I will ultimately be because I’m able to father without feelings of guilt at keeping secrets or hiding behind the shame of hypocrisy. I must remember the domino because the fact remains any one of my actions might be the very one that propels my children’s lives forward in a direction I never intended.