Dear Huhana and Kāhu ō te Rangi,
Huhana, we just finished dinner. Pretty boring start to a letter, huh?
It wasn’t any ordinary dinner though, it was terrifying.
Everything started off fine. We were both at your little person’s table. You were sitting on your little, you-sized chair. I was on the floor, balanced on my me-sized knees.
I was spooning a hot bowl of green, home-made vegetable soup into my mouth when it happened.
I put the spoon down; so did you.
I spun its handle around to face me; you did the same.
I lifted the spoon, lowered my head to blow on it, and looked over at you. Your hand, arm, and head mirrored my motions exactly. It was as if there was an invisible string fixed to my shoulder, elbow, and hand, looped up through a hook in the ceiling, strung back down again, and tied to yours. Like some weird kind of puppeteer show, where every movement I made pulled the string and your body, along with my own. When I moved, you moved. Like I said, it was terrifying.
It was terrifying how much you copy what you see. You weren’t trying to be funny (or scary), you were just following the example I had set for you, with complete seriousness. You assumed, probably expected, that I was showing you the right way to do it, the right way to be.
Yesterday after work I went through my calisthenics exercise routine in the lounge with no top on.
You took your shirt off and did the same.
It’s terrifying because consciously or sub-consciously, over the next 16 years, you’re going to be following the examples that your mum and I set, in things that matter way more than how you eat your soup. You’re also going to be tying that same puppeteer’s string to whoever else is around that you decide to look up to. That’s even more terrifying, because your mum and I have no control over the moves those others make.
Role models can be good or bad, but sometimes even they won’t know which one they are. They might not even know they are a role model, and that a girl like you is watching.
Good role models are a really good way to pick up life lessons (big and small), for free. You can either learn from those who are proven in the things you’re doing, or you can try and figure it out yourself from scratch. The second option can take a lifetime, the first can take the length of a book, a lesson, or a few casual observations.
I hope you copy the good ones and figure out the rest. Figure out what they’re doing that doesn’t work, and avoid that stuff like it was Chucky from Child’s Play.
Otto Van Bismarck was a guy with a really big moustache, in 1800 and something. He was also a pretty smart military strategist, diplomat, and a big fan of learning from others. I like this quote of his:
“Fools learn from experience, I prefer to learn from the experience of others”
The flip side is that it’s just as easy to learn bad habits from others, before they or you, realise the habit is bad.
My role models growing up weren’t all good. They influenced me to make some of the many, little choices that I shouldn’t have. But I had enough great role models around me (including your nana and grandad), who helped me make big choices that, in hindsight, I’m happy with.
I wouldn’t be who I am without those little choices, so I’m not saying they were bad. I just wouldn’t make them again if I could learn the same lessons they taught, another way. Looking back, I see how bad role models caused havoc for some of the kids I grew up with. Their influence came with hurt that those kids had to live through, and sometimes die from. Choosing your role models takes confidence, self-awareness, and an understanding of right and wrong. Teaching you right from wrong is my and your mum’s job. Hopefully, we’ll do it well.
You’ve just started coming home from daycare with these little feet-stamping acts of defiance:
“It’s. Not. Fair!”, “I. Don’t. Care!” and “I’m not your best friend annnnnymore!”
The older kids at daycare say it. So, with no reasoning other than that, you figure it’s something that you should do too.
It’s kind of funny, and cute, and even when you’re saying it in anger, I’m not mad at those role models who influenced you enough to pass it on.
But in twelve years’ time, there will be other kids around you, doing other things, who you will be just as influenced by.
I hope you learn earlier than I did, that you can choose to copy the good ones, and figure out the rest. I don’t mean good kids. I mean good ideas, good actions. Things that do good for you and the world. I’m not saying you should follow all the rules, because not all the rules are right. Follow the good ones. In case your great-uncle Tim is reading this from his NZ Police issue phone, I don’t necessarily mean laws. I mean the rules of life, the rules and reality that the people around you unknowingly enforce through the way they behave, the things they do, and the things they don’t.
I hope you know your mum and I have seen and tested our share of role models, good and bad. We’re here to help when it’s time to choose yours.
P.S This letter doesn’t only apply to your school years. I’m 32 and it’s still just as important who I choose for role models. I still copy the good ones and try to figure out the rest.