Family & Education

Parenting Matters: Food for Thought

Often, we teach better through our actions than our words
BY Parnell Donahue TIMEFebruary 8, 2022 PRINT

Everything parents do is important.

Recently, The Tennessean, a daily newspaper in Nashville, featured a chef I wish I could meet. When he was asked the secret to creating great food, he answered: Start with the best ingredients and don’t mess them up. With my passion for parenting, I immediately thought of this as a parenting lesson.

After all, most parents start with the best ingredients! More than 97 percent of babies are born perfect, filled with love, overflowing with grace, anxious to learn, and carrying a message from their Creator. But we parents tend to mess them up.

Surely not all parents do all the things I’ll mention, but some do. Most parents do a great job. That’s why there are so many really great kids who become adults of character. Unfortunately, some kids suffer because their parents mess up.

These parents teach their kids to lie, cheat, and even to hate. How, you might ask, do they do these wicked things? Let me explain.

We want to give our kids “self-esteem,” so we tell them they are doing a “great job” and give them a trophy, when, in fact, they’re barely even participating.

We ask them who broke the vase, spilled the milk, or tracked mud into the house when we know they did it. Their only way out is to lie and say “I don’t know,” blame the dog, their brother, or one of the neighbors.

We take them out of school to go shopping, and give them a note for school saying they were sick.

We wait on them day and night and ask nothing in return, and wonder why they develop an entitlement mentality.

We buckle them into their car seats, put on a video, plug in our earbuds and listen to music, or talk on the phone, and complain that our kids won’t talk to us.

We let them listen while we brag to our new friends about how much we drank in high school or college, then we tell them not to drink.

We drop them off at church for Sunday school, then go have coffee and a doughnut and return in time to pick them up, and bemoan that our teens don’t want to go to church.

We find time to take them to dance class, gymnastics, rugby, soccer, football, karate, music lessons, voice lessons, perhaps even to a tutor, but never have time to sit with them at the kitchen table and eat dinner.

Often our hearts are in the right place, but our minds give in to our kids’ every want.

Philosophers tell us we’re where we are because of the decisions we make. Our kids, too, are where they are because of the decisions we make.

Parenting need not be hard if we try to simplify things, reduce our kid’s dependence on us, teach them responsibility, and model the people we want them to become.

Some years ago, I was a guest on a “call-in” radio show on parenting. Toward the end of the show, one young father called in and said, “It seems everything we do is important!” “Yes,” I told him, “Everything is!”

How often have we heard a person say, “He’s a good kid, but he has his dad’s temper” or “She’s as sweet and kind as her mother”? These attributes are learned, not inherited. The young father above is right: “Everything is important!”

So what can we do? How can we be better parents?

Try to be the kind of person you want your child to become. Talk and laugh more with your kids and your spouse; eat together, study together, play together, and sleep together (obviously not all in the same bed, but all at the same time).

Be in charge, be the parent, set limits, let them know what you think, and why you think it. Ask frequently what they think and why. Then listen.

You teach all the time, even when you don’t know or think you’re teaching, so make a conscious effort to teach what is true, good, and beautiful. Remember that we teach more and better by our actions than by our words.

But what do you do if your teenager gets into some kind of trouble? Most of the time, it’s not your fault. You did what you thought was right, he had a chance to learn right from wrong, and he obviously chose to do wrong.

Your heart will be broken, but you know you will always find a fragment of your heart that still loves him. Embrace him, love him, and stay connected with him. Give him space to learn, understand, and appreciate your care. Don’t nag him, and please don’t keep bringing up the past. If you remember it, so will he! If you’re troubled about his past, believe me, he is too.

Pray and hope that he will have learned from this bad experience and will return to you like the biblical prodigal son. When he does, open your arms to him. Celebrate him and his return, and let the past go! Until then, never give up hope.

A big thank you to all you parents who continue to raise kids everyone admires! The whole world appreciates you, and so do I.

And thanks too, for the chef who was featured in The Tennessean, and for that local newspaper for printing the story.

One more thing. We will soon be watching the Super Bowl. How about making that part of your family enjoyment effort? Invite your kids and their friends to a watch party. And, for heaven’s sake, do something during halftime so they don’t have to watch the tragic halftime show. If you have teens let them, with the help of their friends, prepare and serve food during halftime and stay around to help clean up. If you live in a suitable climate, go out with the kids (of any age), and enjoy a little halftime touch football game.

And keep on loving and enjoying your kids and your spouse, and may God continue to bless you and your family.

Dr. Parnell Donahue is a pediatrician, a military veteran, and the author of four books, a blog, and He writes The Parenting Matters Podcast and is host of WBOU's "Parenting Matters" show. He and his wife, Mary, have four adult children; all hold PhDs, two are also MDs. Contact him at
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