11/07/2013 10:53 am ET Updated Nov 07, 2013

'You've Got to Be Carefully Taught'

Rosemary Strembicki

Written by Rosemary Strembicki

When Rogers and Hammerstein wrote "You've got to be carefully taught," the lyrics for their 1949 musical, South Pacific, their message was about racism and the intolerance of people that are different. But every time I hear these words I think about the assumption we make as parents that our children will learn about the world through their individual experiences without realizing the impact we have on that learning.

The biggest influence on our children is their home environment and our daily interaction with them. What are they seeing and hearing from us, how are they interpreting it and how are we seeing it reflected in their behavior? Is our 3-month-old not sleeping through the night because he gets hungry, or is he anxious about being away from mom? Is our 8-year-old refusing to go to school because "the teacher is mean," or is she worried about what's happening at home while she's gone? Is our teenager bullying friends at school because he can't control his anger, or is he modeling what he's experienced from Mom or Dad? The answers are tough to determine, but reflecting on our own behavior and relationship with our children will often provide clues.

When my first child began to talk, I was astonished to hear my words, phrases and tone of voice coming from a 2-year-old. It was my first inkling that I was teaching her in ways that I was not aware of and that I'd better start paying attention. When she began studying art, I wondered if it was genetic (her father is an artist) or if she had learned to express herself by watching him. I don't think I'll ever know the answer, but I do know that my children's basic values reflect our family's, and that's no coincidence.

We are constantly imparting knowledge to our children through interactions with them and others. They're watching how we manage our lives, cope with our feelings and treat our friends. They're absorbing the energy that we're imparting, our stress becomes their stress and our joy becomes their joy. It's not the words that make the impression; it's the feeling that accompanies those words. We can't control our feelings or the outside influences that impact our lives. But we can control how we react to them. No one gets through life without some struggle and catastrophe can arise at any time. Our children are watching us and learning to cope, or not, from our reactions.

I can cite studies or talk about how the experts suggest we raise our children. But I truly believe that if we reflect, question ourselves and look for our own answers, we'll gain the confidence to raise our children to meet their goals. Let's just be aware that they're learning from us and let's take the responsibility to teach them what we want them to know.

You can contact Rosemary at