What Kind of Example Am I to My Child?

Happy family with two kids

Our dear friend Cathy once told us one of our favorite childrearing stories. It goes like this: One hot summer evening, Cathy had a fun-filled dinner party, complete with families, friends and neighbor children. But after her friends left, Cathy’s 3-year old-daughter exclaimed, “Oh, am I glad they’re gone!”

“I asked myself, Where did my little girl learn to talk like that!” Cathy told us. It didn’t take her long to realize that her daughter was repeating the same words that Cathy had said to her husband on a previous occasion, after company had left their house. “Now I know I have an audience who likes to mimic,” Cathy said with a laugh, “I’d better choose my words more carefully!”

From the moment you hold your precious newborn, your every move becomes a model for the way the world operates. What power lies in that modeling! Consider all the things your child watches you do in the course of a single day: brush your teeth, greet your partner, talk on the phone, use a napkin, wear a seatbelt…. The list goes on and on.

You pass along a legacy

There is some good news here: Just as our children pick up on the inappropriate behavior we model, they also imitate what’s appropriate in our day-to-day habits. If you want your 2-year-old to be truthful, then you should tell the truth to her, as well as to others.

Think of role modeling as your most basic tool for teaching your child the good behavior you want him to learn. For example, if you don’t want your 15-month-old to act aggressively, don’t spank him or hit your pet puppy—even when they’re misbehaving (or when you’re upset for another reason).

Calm yourself, calm your child

One of the most important tools you can teach a toddler is how to tolerate frustration. Being a pillar of patience at all times is far from easy, but responding to an upset child by getting upset will not help her learn how to calm herself. So keep your cool by giving yourself a break. During the inevitable temper tantrum, like when your little one doesn’t want to go to bed, calm yourself down with this simple self-talk: “I don’t need to get upset just because my child’s upset.” Keep these words handy. You may need them often as your child develops his own tools for handling frustration and delaying gratification, and learns all the lessons of childhood that will help him cope with the ups and downs of life.

Your lifelong responsibility as your child’s chief role model in tolerating frustration (and oh so much more!) is an amazing gift to you and your child. For example, if you want to prepare her to learn how to read, you have to read, too. And when the day comes for your child to drive a car, guess whose driving she’ll have been watching most for the past 16 years.

This information is not a substitute for personal medical, psychiatric or psychological advice.