Children Learn What They Live

When I was young my father gave me two wallet-sized plastic cards. No, not credit cards. I wish. You know how much damage a drug addict could do with credit cards back in the 80s? A lot! No, these two cards held powerful words on them. At the time the meaning of those words were lost on me, but because it was my dad that gave them to me I stuffed the cards in my wallet and didn’t give them much thought until I was older and he had died.

The first card was Footprints. If you’ve been following me for a while, you know how much impact this poem has had on me over the years. Knowing I’m not alone through my darkest hours when I felt so completely isolated. Whew! Amazing! I took that card out of wallet so many times the corner broke off of it. 

The other card my father gave me was Children Learn What They Live. This one I rarely took out even as I grew older. I mean, why would I? I had no kids at the time and I saw it as slap in the face. My mother said some horrific things to me so why would he give me something that reinforced what an awful parent my mother had become the last few years? It didn’t make sense to me at the time.

The whole reason I was snorting line after line of blow was because it was the best escape I’d found from the negative loop that was running in my head all the time, “You’re selfish,” and “You’re bitch,” and so on. The loop my mother had put there.

Then, I had kids of my own. I understood what the purpose of the plastic card was from my father. Without saying it out loud, without choosing between his wife and his daughter, he was telling me to do better. To stop the cycle. He was saying, “I’m sorry.”

I wish I could say that I was a perfect parent. I wasn’t. There were many times I yelled and lost my temper. But I never name-called. Not once and now that I’m in a program, the yelling is gone too. (Funny how emotional sobriety works, huh?)

While I’d like to say that the story ends here, it doesn’t. My self-esteem was crushed by my mom because she didn’t know how to parent either. She did the best she could from how she was raised and in turn, I did my best and continue to learn and evolve. However, my youngest is now finding out that while things at home may be calm, at school they aren’t. I just found out two weeks ago that a group of students have been harassing my child in the hallways, shouting horrible things, and name-calling. It got to such a point, that my child finally felt so overwhelmed by it and told me. And it’s been going on since January. January!

This bullying has caused my child’s self-esteem to plummet. They look in the mirror and see someone ugly looking back. My child’s inner light has been taken by these kids. While I wanted to go up to the school and punch the ring-leader square in the face, I didn’t. Instead, I called the school. I’m happy to say the school is being very proactive and working with my child to make them feel comfortable about walking through the hallways, but now I’m left trying to put the pieces of their self-worth back together again.

Children do learn what they live and it’s not just in their homes. It’s in their schools, on their bus ride home, during after school activities, or even standing at the bus stop. I think it’s up to us, as parents or guardians to help them realize no one should have the power to rob them their true self-worth.

We have a long road ahead of us because of everything that’s happened with my child this last year and now this, but I believe that I have been given the tools through my recovery and counseling to be a better parent and finally also possess my own self-confidence to show my child how to gain theirs too. The first thing we’re starting with is Affirmation Cards!

I also know my father is looking down and smiling because he is still able to parent me from up above.

Have you ever been bullied? Do you have a favorite poem or writing?


For those of you not familiar with the poem:

Children Learn What They Live
by Dorothy Law Nolte, Ph.D.

If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

Copyright © 1972 by Dorothy Law Nolte