When I think of my parents, I’m aware of ways in which they’ve served as my role models. My mother, for example, set a sumptuous table, and she and my dad would wrangle lonesome strays for every holiday. That and other things they did inspired me to try to be a gracious hostess.
This wasn’t easy when I tried to balance motherhood and work. It took me so long to use the Wedgewood I’d received as wedding gifts and promptly packed away that my son, 12 at the time, asked if the dishes were new.
I suspect all parents consider themselves as “monkey-see-monkey-do” templates for children’s behavior and values. Kids’ worlds expand exponentially as they grow up, however, and our influence quickly becomes diluted as a widening circle of tastemakers wields power both positive and negative. We’re grateful for teachers who inspire a love of chemistry in our children, a course we ourselves may have barely passed, just as we resent Il Duce Jr. of middle school who teaches our boy curses so colorful we’re obliged to Google their definitions.
Every year our influence shrinks. By the time kids are adults, it’s easy to consider quitting the role-model business, feeling that the sell-by date for character-building has expired.
This is probably why, when both my sons married last year, I panicked, suddenly wondering if I’d done everything I could to mold them into men who would become, if not Noble Prize winners, then solid citizens, loving husbands and future fathers beyond reproach. Tough nuts if I hadn’t, because the invitations were in the mail, the tuxedoes were at the tailor, and the time for a crash course had dribbled away.
It’s only now, with each son having celebrated his first anniversary, that I realize parents can continue ad infinitum to embody traits worth emulating. There’s no reason we can’t be a force field of evolving happiness and, here and there, even a model of moral excellence.
You Never Stop Being a Role Model
“Children often cannot hear what you say because you are screaming so loudly at them,” a Chinese proverb proclaims. With adults kids, being a role model pivots on demonstrating how to live well — in every dimension — as we get older. It’s communicated through our actions.
As inspiration I look no further than my own friends and family. My mother-in-law — still engaged, curious, gorgeous and fun at 89 — is exactly the kind of woman I’d love to be when I’m her age, should I have the good fortune to live that long in fine health. (And if I only had her nose…)
Closer to my own age, I’m taken with qualities in other people that I wish I, too, could exemplify. My friend Cathy McMullen, a college professor in Minnesota, is a model of patience as a grandmother. “To be honest,” she says, “one reason I’m unfailingly patient with my grandson — which means not only not being crabby but reading him the same book or playing the same game for the umpteenth time — is guilt.
“Perhaps I can do for him what I didn’t do for my child. Perhaps now I know a lot more than I did then about priorities. Perhaps I relish the chance to do it right this time.”
This is critical to trying to be an evolving role model: aiming high and, like a practitioner of Pilates, stretching yourself into a different, better version of the younger you.
I admire the way my friend Lisa Endlich Hefferman takes care of her nephew, who has special needs. She says she does this for two reasons: because her brother needs help and to show her kids that this is what you do for a sibling.
In my own family, almost nothing makes my husband and me happier than seeing our grown-up sons enjoy each other. I hope they always will, even if their lives take increasingly different directions, perhaps because they recognize what a devoted brother their father is and how I, too, try to nurture faraway relationships by meeting my sister each summer for overnights at the Jersey Shore — halfway between her home in Philadelphia and mine in New York — and visiting back and forth with my brother in Los Angeles.
I especially wish my kids take note of how their father all but reveres his mother. I don’t need to be worshipped, but, hey, I wouldn’t mind if my kids thought such admiration was normal.
It’s Not About Being Perfect
As a role model, I know I fall short in many areas. With finances, for example. If you’re looking for a couple that doesn’t need a tax extension — every year — don’t come to my house. To make things easier for their family in an emergency, a couple I know maintains a notebook with copies of every important document. I am shockingly delinquent in this category. How many times have I made a New Year’s resolution to get all of our records in order, only for it to be Dec. 31 again without any progress to show for the previous 12 months? And let’s not get started on photograph albums.
My opportunities for self-improvement know no end. But maybe my sons will at least give me credit for how I’ve tried to be resilient — and not too big a whiner — when I lost a job I loved and had to reinvent myself in midlife. (Now I’m a writer, which I love.) Their dad has done the same, and recently established himself at an international real estate company where most of his colleagues are years younger. I sure hope our kids notice that we still walk all over town, that their father bikes and that I run, and how at every party, we’re the first ones out on the dance floor.
“The best thing you can do for your kids is show them that you are enjoying life,” my wise friend Jackie Goldstein says. Now that I can model.