The Difference Between Show and Tell: What I learned when I stopped telling and just started being an example

walk-the-talk“Honey, share with your brother.  It is the nice thing to do.”

“Stop screaming!  Just ask nicely!”

“Show some patience.  He’s just a baby.”

“Think about how he must feel.”

“Eat your peas.  They’re good for you.”

We find ourselves saying phrases like these all day long to our kids.  The standard is basically, “Be a patient, considerate, compassionate, respectful, healthy, good communicator and listener.”  That’s the standard that our words set, but what message do our behaviors send?

I always think of the guy who enthusiastically laid into his horn because I, distracted by my kids in the back seat, hesitated to go when the light turned green.  He sped past me, glaring at me and still laying on the horn. That’s when I noticed the Christian bumper sticker.  While I was tempted to turn up my nose and assure myself that I was nothing like that hypocrite, I had to admit, I too could be like that guy at times.

As parents we are challenged with maintaining awareness of the implicit messages we send, not just the explicit.  The implicit message of the guy laying on the horn was, “Anger trumps patience,” which trumped his explicit message of “Jesus Saves” on his back bumper.  My implicit message of shoving my toddler out of the way when he takes too long to get out the door trumps my carefully worded admonition to, “use nice hands.”  (And I know this is controversial, but I happen to believe that spanking gives the implicit messages, ” It’s okay to hit, and there are times when respect can go out the window”.  How can we spank our kids for not being respectful?  Sounds a little like the “Christian” laying on the horn.)

One day I heard my oldest son talking about a little boy in his class who made a lot of mistakes with his math.  He wasn’t exactly using the words, “dumb” or “stupid,” but he was definitely getting a kick out of seeming “superior” to his classmate.  My child was participating in what I would consider “little boy gossip.”  Apparently, my five-year-old was starting to develop his sense of “competition” and “superiority.”  While it seemed developmentally normal for him to begin to notice that there were different skill levels and to take pride in being especially skilled, I was concerned about one thing.  What made him think it was “okay,” let alone  something he intentionally shared with his mother with pride, to put someone down?  What made him think that this was an acceptable way to treat his fellow classmate, even behind his back?  I mean I had been telling him his whole life that “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it at all.”  I had been telling him for five years, “It isn’t nice to point out that they did a bad job.”  I had been constantly reminding him, “You need to treat people with respect.”  I definitely had the “tell” down, but did what about the “show”?

I thought long and hard.  It actually took me all day to really put my finger on the likely source of my son’s new attitude.  Finally, I had to admit, a few days earlier, my son had heard me talking to my mom on the phone, basically trashing her new boss’s approach to business and marketing.  Business is something I, incidentally know nothing about.  But still, I felt it was okay to go on and on in a negative way about how I just knew her consignment clothing store was going to fail with $6,000 per month in overhead and no traffic to the store.  I felt it was okay to roll my eyes, get a tone of disgust, and completely trash this woman.

As mommies, we know the old cliché, “actions speak louder than words.”  If you’ve ever heard your child chastise a sibling, “Get over here RIGHT now,” or “You have until the count of three!” in a voice similar to your own, you know the truth in these words.  We can tell our kids all we want to be the *gold standard* in behavior, but all of that goes out the window when we don’t walk to talk.

I knew that I needed to handle the “little boy gossip” situation with some “show” instead of “tell.”  I decided to make a conscious effort to use kind, appreciative, up-lifting words about people every chance I got.  “Joey is working so hard on his math! He is really trying so hard and sticking with it.  Good for him!”  “Mrs. Bellows forgot to bring the treat for the class, but isn’t it wonderful how sweet and patient she is?”  “Daddy burned the chicken, but the inside is still okay!  Wasn’t that nice of Daddy to make us dinner?!”  I even re-created the phone-call with my mom within earshot of my son, “Your boss is really hard-working.  I may have disagreed with her on how to run her business, but she is obviously a very smart and hard-working woman.”

Whew, this was not an easy task.  Like the “Christian laying on the horn,” sometimes I find it much easier to talk the talk than to walk the walk.  But guess what happened about a week after I made this conscious effort with my son?  I over heard something quite amazing.

He and his younger brother were making Lego towers side-by-side.  Of course, his brother, two years his junior, had a tower that left much to be desired.  Did my oldest take that opportunity to diminish his brother and feel superior?  No.

I heard him say, “That’s a little shorter than mine, but it’s still really good.  I like that you used a lot of blue.  Blue is my favorite color.”

Seems small, but it melted my heart.  I hate to admit it, because it makes parenting so much harder, but the “show” really trumps the “tell.” Every time.


This overthinking mommy

P.S.  As usual, please excuse all the typos and errors.  I’m just a mom trying to carve out 20 minutes of uninterrupted time to share!


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