Parenting like nobody is watching

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 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.

 Image Credit


Receive Essays By Email

* indicates required

9 responses to Parenting like nobody is watching

  1. Yes! God bless you Kyle for understanding this basic truth and putting it out there for all to see. I was lucky enough to be a ‘late in life’ mom and got to witness through others what happens when you ignore this basic credo. Some of the results were and are horrifying to watch.

    If everyone would just grow up and operate with the basic assumption their children are watching them 24/7 and then ask themselves, “how happy or proud would I be to see my son/daughter doing this OR having this done to him/her?” the world would be a much better place in general.

    I place this post right up there with Would You Let Your Daughter Date You? in the importance of proper parenting, divorced or not. You ROCK!!!

  2. Parents who deny their children’s awareness are in denial! The saying, “actions speak louder than words” was never more relevant then when it comes to parenting. Children observe EVERYTHING and understand much more than most parents give them credit for. Once you have children, you are no longer free to live your life for just yourself-every decision, action, and word can impact your children for years to come and help shape the people they become.
    As for the woman who lives an alternative lifestyle, although, I do not judge individuals who chose to have open relationships and appreciate that it works for many couples, I do believe that when it comes to living an alternative lifestyle you must be discreet around your children. Alternative lifestyles are complex and a very sophisticated topic that far exceeds the comprehension of children.
    Great post, Kyle!

  3. Kyle Bradford – Author

    “I do believe that when it comes to living an alternative lifestyle you must be discreet around your children. ” —

    Marrie, do believe that is possible, indefinitely?

  4. Well said. We have 2 teenagers and an 11 year old. One thing I’ve learned ages ago is that your kids not only copy you, but they do what you expect them to do.

    For instance, if you’re going about telling people in their presence that, ‘they’re going to be terrible teens soon’, (for example) that’s exactly what they’ll be.

    I always made sure my pre-teens knew I expected more responsibility, more help around the home etc. Before my first child turned 13, I used to tell people that we’ll soon have two and a half adults around the home.

    My teens are great. They learned from watching us and from what we expected of them.

  5. The whole “do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t work. If you don’t parent your kids, your kids will learn from other sources. Actions truly speak louder than words. The “open marriage” thing just makes absolutely no sense to me. Either you’re married and in a committed relationship or you’re not. It’s not, let’s ride the fence. When the kid is 16 and they believe it’s perfect okay to, ahem, screw around with all that moves, is that okay too? Hm. Consequences can come fast and heavy and without warning. Sometimes you better watch your step. My observation is that there are those that think parenting is a joke — and we wonder why sometimes we listen to the news and are horrified? Guess what. Even as a non-parent, just a godparent, I know, the most important job you will ever have once you have a child is “Parent”. Before you’re “Supervisor-this”, “Manager-that”, “Chief Operating-whatever”, you’re “Parent”.

    The West Indian Mother was mother first, friend second. Not the other way around. Actually, she wasn’t even a friend — who am I kidding? But you get my point. There were expectations she had of me and I knew I needed to walk the line. She didn’t care if we were in public — she wasn’t waiting for that “just wait until you get home ‘new age’ nonsense”…she was gonna set me straight right there and then — not matter who was watching. Oh, um — yes.

    I’ve lived in a few places and traveled quite a bit. I’m fascinated about acceptable behaviors culturally, specifically as it relates to parenting and self-respect and respect of others.

  6. Wilbert J. Fields

    The ideal relationship for children of divorce with their fathers is to have dad close by and there at anytime the child wants or needs them. Strictly limiting the time the father can see the child is detrimental to the child. Allow the children free and unlimited access to their father via phone. Fathers, call your children daily. This will keep you close by. It may feel to the child as if you are actually there.

Comments are closed.