How I lifted my game to be a better influence on my kids

Wondering why your kid is acting like a ratbag? For Chris Ryan, the answer was in the mirror.

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My three-year-old son had his finger up his nose to the second knuckle. “Don’t pick your nose,” I told him. At least not in public, I thought.

He studied the snot he’d pulled from his nostril then flicked it onto the ground. “Pick and flick,” he said proudly.

“What?”

“Pick and flick, pick and flick, pick and flick,” he chanted, before mining his other nostril for a second missile. I asked where he learnt his new “trick.” Once he pulled his finger from his nose, he said Grandpa taught him.

When I asked Dad if he passed on the “pick and flick” move, he said it was better than what his grandson was doing – picking and eating. Fair point, but I thought teaching a child not to pick their nose at all (at least in public) might have been a better idea.

I had recently gotten in the habit of asking my kid where he picked up bad behaviour whenever he played up. Mostly, my dad wasn’t to blame.

When my son started spitting everywhere he told me, “Marty does it”. I blamed a kid at day care until I realised he was talking about the zebra in Madagascar. Marty can also be blamed for teaching my son to yell, “Crack-a-lackin’,” which is even more annoying.

TV or movies are usually where he learns silly behaviour, from trying to climb walls like Gecko from PJ Masks, to running around yelling, “Choo choo!” as he pretends to be Thomas the Tank Engine (now banned in our house).

But there were some things I couldn’t blame on television, which I’d let him watch, or my old man. When my kid muttered “motherf#*ker” after he knocked his toilet seat to the floor, I knew that I was the bad influence.

He even mimicked my tone, speaking more deeply than usual, with the same sense of frustration. “Motherf#*ker” had become my go-to swearword when he was a baby.

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I would drag it out when I was dismayed and defeated – when my kid shat on the floor, or vomited down my back. For a time I worried it would be his first word. No risk of that, but he’d certainly learnt it.

That was a one off – maybe he associates the word with bathroom accidents – but he’s yelled, “What the hell?” plenty of times. While my wife’s not happy about it, I think I deserve credit for censoring myself before, “What the f#*k?” spills out.

Hearing our son swear has reminded me that, more than kids in the playground, my parents or TV, my wife and I are the most powerful influences on how our two kids carry on.

We can admonish bad behaviour as much as we want, but if the example we set isn’t a good one, we’re wasting out breath. It’s hardly a revelation but it took me a while to take it on board and change the way I act.

“When my kid muttered “motherf#*ker” after he knocked his toilet seat to the floor, I knew that I was the bad influence.”

My wife and I gave up saying “please” and “thank you” to each other about a week into our decade-long relationship.

Now the phrases are getting a new outing, as we tell our kid to stop grunting demands if he wants to get his mitts on something.

I make a point of putting my phone aside if I don’t need to make a call or respond to a message, instead of scrolling through Instagram or Twitter, so I can listen to my son properly, as we encourage him to pay attention when he’s being spoken to.

Around the house, I’ve stopped leaving gym gear lying in the doorway and dishes in the sink, in the hope that “put your toys away” seems like a sensible suggestion, rather than another hypocritical order.

In the car, I try to stay calmer and show my kid that getting worked up doesn’t solve problems. If someone cuts me off, instead of blasting the horn or swearing over the radio, I tell myself the driver might be rushing to hospital.

Just because someone’s weaving through traffic in a hotted-up hatchback, flicking ciggies out the window and cranking the car stereo so loud you can’t hear an ambo siren, doesn’t mean they aren’t racing to their dying dad’s bedside. Though they’re still a prick.

And when it comes to swearing generally, I’m working hard to do it a lot less.

Now, if our newborn launches a poo explosion that blows through her nappies while our three-year-old throws a sh*t fit, I’ll simply close my eyes, shake my head and take a deep breath.

And then I mutter “motherf#*ker” – but I say it really, really quietly.

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