Show, don’t tell

There’s a saying in fiction writing: “Show, don’t tell.” This concept applies just as much in parenting.

Let’s say that every Sunday you get dressed and you and your family get in the car and go to church. At church, you learn lessons about:

  • loving thy neighbor,
  • not judging others, and
  • being aware of the plank in your own eye counter to the habit of pointing out the speck of dust in another’s.

You return home from church and eat lunch. The remainder of the week, you participate, actively or passively, in neighborhood gossip. Your contribution could be relatively small but it is a contribution nonetheless.

You cast judgments on others without once approaching the individual or individuals being spoken about.

You base your opinion on a negativity bias presented to you. You hear whispers and while you don’t add to it, you also don’t stop the conversation; instead, you stand there and listen. In effect, you are participatory because you are allowing someone an audience.

You never once consider wrong perception on your part. You forget that a book has more than one page, one chapter, and there’s a such thing as an unreliable narrator.

You fail to comprehend that someone who talks about another has the same capacity to talk about you or your children — one day. Perhaps they already do and you’re too foolish to yet realize it.

You say certain things aloud to your spouse and in the presence of your children. And despite occasionally realizing you were in the wrong to say such things out loud, you fail to hold yourself accountable or make a vocal correction in the same company as your pronouncement.

Your pride overrules your humility.

What message are you sending your child? What behavior do you believe your children will grow up to model?

The one taught in church on Sunday morning:

Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome person for kindling strife. The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts.

Proverbs 26:20-22

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.

1 Peter 3:8-9

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you.

Matthew 7:12

Or the one taught at home by the parent the rest of the week?

  • Love others, but not everyone
  • Be kind, but not always
  • Do not judge others, except for them
  • Do not castigate, save for this one time
  • Do not speak ill of others, unless they are out of earshot

It’s a cultural norm to tell your kids what’s right and wrong, what’s good and what’s bad; but talk is cheap at the end of the day. Words alone are empty.

Kids hear everything you say, even when you think they aren’t listening.

They see everything you do, even when you think they aren’t paying a lick of attention.

Over time, kids learn to model their behavior not by what you tell them, but by what you show them.

What are you showing them? Is it a contradiction to what you tell them? It’s a question we should all ask ourselves, every day.

After all, the principles of religion and religious belief, regardless of your religion or denomination, are not intended for one day a week. Otherwise:

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.

James 1:26

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By Jeffrey Pillow

Jeffrey Pillow is an American short story writer, memoirist, and poet. He is the author of The Lady Next Door. His writing has been published in Urge Magazine, The Nervous Breakdown, 16 Blocks, USA Today, Sports Illustrated, TheBody.com, New York Times, Washington Post, and Richmond Times-Dispatch.

He grew up in the small town of Phenix, Virginia, population: 200, and now lives in Charlottesville with his wife, two kids, and a dog named Mozzarella Cheese. He is a graduate of the University of Virginia where he was a Rainey Scholar. This is his blog.