I am vacationing on a tiny island off the coast of North Carolina. It is where my parents retired, so my family is very blessed to spend a week here every summer. I promised in my last post, which was a re-post, that I would write something new while on vacation, so I have been trying to come up with ideas. I do a lot of my thinking while riding my bike around the island trying to undo the effects of my mother’s cooking. This morning, the topic for today’s post practically crashed into me at the corner of Federal Road and Muscadine Wynd.
I was riding along when a child of about six pedaled into the intersection without stopping at the stop sign. I swerved and missed the little girl, but she fell and so did her father who swerved to miss her. I stopped to make sure everyone was okay (they were, aside from some six-year-old tears and a snotty nose) and kept riding. What struck me as ironic was that all of the children and teenagers in the party were wearing helmets (the state of NC requires helmets for all bicyclists under the age of 16), but none of the adults were.
I have written before about the importance of parents acting as role models for their children. In earlier posts, I have pointed out that “Do as I say and not as I do” is a very ineffective parenting principle. See, for example, Not the Fat One, Don’t Go Back to Middle School, and Dealing with a Difficult Teacher. So here’s another of my many quotes from child clients about the power of role models:
<dripping with sarcasm> I’ll take this stupid medicine for ADHD if Dad will take his blood pressure medicine. That is, unless it’s more important for me to study than for Dad to stay alive. Carrie, age 14
Pretty powerful, huh?
I have never met a parent who disagreed, in principle, about the importance of modeling appropriate behavior for children. So why were the majority of parents I saw riding bikes alongside children during my vacation not wearing helmets?
[SIDEBAR: Please pardon this rant, but it would actually make more sense, if only some family members were going to wear helmets, for it to be parents who wear them. First of all, a child’s brain is much more likely to recover from a head injury than an adult’s. Secondly, who is going to take care of the children in the event that a parent has a bike accident and suffers permanent effects of brain injury? End of rant.]
Now, back to the importance of being a good role model… Think about what lessons children learn when parents require them to wear helmets but don’t protect their own heads:
- Only practice safety measures when required to do so by law.
- Avoiding getting in trouble is more important than exercising good judgement.
- If safety measures are inconvenient or annoying (i.e., hot, un-cool, un-stylish, expensive, etc.), don’t worry about following them.
- Do as I say, not as I do.
- Your brain/body/well-being is important; mine is not.
- Protecting your brain is important before, but not after, your 16th birthday.
These lessons are ridiculous, right? I seriously doubt that a rational parent is ever going to make any of these comments to his child. Yet, every time a parent puts a helmet on a child and goes on a bike ride without donning one herself, she might as well say all of the above because these are the messages her behavior is sending.
This post is about bike helmets, but it is about so much more. It is about exercise and nutrition, substance use and speed limits, work habits and leisure activities. It is about telling the truth, spending money wisely, and treating others with compassion. Our children model so much of their behavior on what they learn from us. When they become adults, their values will mirror ours to a great extent. Being a good role model is not always easy (think, for example, about how tricky it is to teach adolescents about responsible alcohol use). As parents, we should take advantage of the simple opportunities. What could be simpler than strapping on a helmet and leading the way on a safe and fun family bike ride?