Living What I've Learned

"Children Learn What They Live"
--a poem by Dorothy Law Nolte

If a child lives with criticism,
he learns to condemn.

If a child lives with hostility,
he learns to fight.

If a child lives with fear,
he learns to be apprehensive.

If a child lives with pity,
he learns to feel sorry for himself.

If a child lives with ridicule,
he learns to be shy.

If a child lives with jealousy,
he learns what envy is.

If a child lives with shame,
he learns to feel guilty.

If a child lives with encouragement,
he learns to be confident.

If a child lives with tolerance,
he learns to be patient.

If a child lives with praise,
he learns to be appreciative.

If a child lives with acceptance,
he learns to love.

If a child lives with approval,
he learns to like himself.

If a child lives with recognition,
he learns that it is good to have a goal.

If a child lives with sharing,
he learns about generosity.

If a child lives with honesty and fairness,
he learns what truth and justice are.

If a child lives with security,
he learns to have faith in himself and in those about him.

If a child lives with friendliness,
he learns that the world is a nice place in which to live.

If you live with serenity,
your child will live with peace of mind.


As a child of dysfunction and codependency and as a mother, this poem speaks so loudly and clearly to me. The first stanzas really touch me. This is because I lived with so many of these things: criticism, fear, pity, ridicule, jealousy and shame. Those were the things that were taught to me most strongly.

As I try to find a new way to think, behave and love myself and others, I have read just about everything that I could put my hands on about children growing up in abuse, neglect, co-dependency, etc. Amidst my readings, I stumbled upon a statement that is essentially the same thing this poem is saying,

"A child cannot help become what they have been taught or what has been modeled for them in their formative years."

For some very lucky children, they experience mostly the positive attributes mentioned in the poem. For others, like me, we are sentenced to repeating destructive, unhealthy thought patterns and behaviors simply for the reason that it is what we were shown.

I am not a bad person, a bad wife, a bad mother. I have been crippled by the things my parents did or did not do while raising me. From a very young age, I experienced anxiety. I was always fearful of what my mother would be like when I spoke to her--happy mommy, or scary, angry mommy. Even when I had explained my plans to a "T" to her and she gave me her consent to go do things, I often returned to rage-filled yelling for doing what I told her I would do. As a result, to this day, when my mother calls me or sends me an email, I immediately become the same small child who was yelled at for things I didn't do, for doing the things I said I was going to do, and sometimes just being a witness to her rage directed at someone else.

My mom was a yeller. When angry, my mother could break the sound barrier with her rants. As a result, when I became a mother and although I swore I would never be like her, I found myself losing my temper and yelling at my children. Almost immediately, I would realize what I had done and I KNEW exactly how my children felt. I had been them for years and years. Even as recently as this past September (at age 33), my mother returned to the rage and yelling although only briefly.

Once I recognized that I had yelled at my children, realized how they were feeling, I would always cry and apologize. What a horrible mother I was! How could I be so mean and insensitive? How could I make that same mistake that I vowed I would not?


Simply for the fact that I knew nothing else. I did not know the mother who chided her children gently for a mistake, loved them, and encouraged them to try something different or better. Although I didn't want to be the scary, angry mommy, it was too familiar and easy. And even when I tried with all my might NOT to be that mother, I was still too often that person.

Because I had never really allowed the reality of my childhood to be felt, to be named, to be grieved, I failed to become anything but a carbon copy of my mother. And only recently have I been able to see the need for those things and work on them.

I wish that I could say that I am never the scary, angry mommy anymore. But that wouldn't be true. I promised myself that this blog would be full of the truth--cold, hard and brutal--because sharing anything but the truth would not be helpful to anyone, let alone to me. But I am learning that before I can truly become the loving, gentle, correcting, and encouraging mother my children need, I have to be that same type of mother to myself.

Part of Adult Children of Alcoholics process is reparenting yourself. And I believe that they really have something there. When we parent our children, we draw from our own experiences, our own values, our own beliefs. If our belief is that we were never good enough, that we always made stupid mistakes, and that we were generally bad children (or at least insignificant), we have no ability to pass on something different...

...until and unless we acknowledge that what we believe about ourselves is wrong, we parent ourselves with love, acceptance, grace, and encouragement. You see, the reason our parents reared us the way they did is that they were also taught broken patterns and behaviors. But we can learn something new. We're not old dogs (yet).

I believe that no matter how we are, how old are children are, we can still learn new thought processes and teach them to our children (or others). We CAN break the cycle of dysfunction.

If that isn't true...what's the point of trying another day?

"And I am sure that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on that day when Christ Jesus comes back again." --Philippians 1:6 NLT

Father, my one hope is that there can be something else than what I lived as a child, not only for me but also for my children and the future generations. I cling to this hope because some days it's hard to believe that there can be something else, and that I can master it. But I trust in You knowing that although You allowed me to live through very dark times, you WILL complete the good work You've begun in me. Please grant courage to do the things that are tough as I make the changes--admitting that I've been wrong and done bad things, and ask for forgiveness. Surround me with those who will love, encourage, and not judge me but who will also be willing to speak the truth in love when I'm still wrong. Reveal to me those things that I still need to work on, and give me the tenacity to stick with it, for the reward is worth the price. In Jesus' name, AMEN.


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